Ask Moving Writers: Generating Ideas or Narrowing Them Down

AMW Karla

Dear Trish,

I’m sure we’ve all been on both sides of this problem at some time or another. I know I sure have! And as an adult writer who’s been practicing for many more years than the young writers in my classroom, it’s easier for me to diagnose and treat my writing ailments. Although there’s no cure for idea deficit or idea overload, there are a few remedies I might prescribe.

Our first patient is the “I don’t know what to write” student who hems and haws with a topic and doesn’t know what to say or how. This particular writing problem sometimes gets me talking to myself. I confess that I’ve mistaken these indecisive writers as behavior problems, or worse, plain old lazy. The truth is, most of the time, this type of student truly does require guidance. And before I offer a few strategies to cultivate ideas, there are three checks that I use to test the vital signs of my assignment:

  • Does this assignment offer students choice?
  • Can all students find something relevant or relatable to discuss?
  • Is what I’m asking students to do achievable?

This is important because if a student is too confined, he or she may come up short on ideas. If they can’t relate to the assignment or find some glimmer of inspiration, back to the drylands. And if what I’m asking students to do is too far outside their ability levels, it may cause unnecessary stress and confusion. Trust me, I’ve been guilty on all counts and it was crippling to my students.

Now that that’s out of the way, here are a few fixes for the out-of-ideas student:

Talk. The is the best way I’ve found to help students generate ideas. My classes love activities like Philosophical Chairs and Socratic seminar to explore and define their ideas. I wonder if some of the problem with brainstorming and prewriting is students aren’t sure of what their ideas even are — where they stand on particular issues and what experiences they have to support their thinking. Talk is a simple remedy to cure the no-ideas blues.

Inspire. The longer I teach, the more I realize I’m in the inspiration business. There’s nothing quite like inspired student writing. As we age and mature, we seek our harness our own inspiration, but students need our help. Maybe it’s a walk outside on a beautiful day, maybe it’s a thought provoking story or image, maybe it’s a compelling question or quote, maybe it’s a unique and engaging short film. Whatever it is, I believe the more we create inspiration, the more ideas our students will generate ideas and feel moved to write.

List. Of all the Notebook Time ideas out there (like these, these, and this), my absolute favorite for the struggling writer is the simplest of them all. The small but mighty list. Whether it’s an idea web, an alphabetized list (like this Alpha Boxes assignment I love), or a trusty Top 10, this old school intervention strategy can, at the very least, help our struggling writers put black on white and begin to orient themselves to the landscape of their thoughts. And listing can help ideas take off, which of course, may lead to a side-effect…

On to our next patient — the overwhelmed-by-ideas, “how do I choose just one?” student who may need to play some elaborate game of idea darts to narrow down the choices.

When discussing the creative process, Stephen King said, “If they’re bad ideas, they go away on their own.”

I love this frame when I talk to students who are unsure about which topic to choose for their writing. For my students who have lots and lots of “good” ideas, the trick is helping them find the great idea.

I like to ask students to sit with their ideas for a while before officially claiming a topic, with the hope that the less-great ideas will have gone home for the night. We talk about the ideas that stick as their “shower ideas” — or the ideas that come back to them over and over at random and unobvious times. I don’t want these creative kids, or any kids, getting locked into an idea that doesn’t excite them.

So it becomes a matter of design, where the product is intentional, thought out, and effective. The advantage for the “too many ideas” writers is they have the opportunity to create a smart design.

Here is a series of questions for your inspired writers that may help them land on a single topic or focus:

  • Which ideas excite me the most? (Choose 3-5)
  • What do I find most compelling about them?
  • What experiences, observations, or knowledge do I have that supports these ideas?
  • Which idea could I tell the best story about?
  • Which topic do I know the most about?
  • Which topic do I find most interesting, problematic, or provocative?
  • Which of these best supports the assignment and prompt?

A few doses of these homemade writing remedies typically do the trick. After your students have found their great idea, have them free write a page or so and call you in the morning.

What strategies do YOU have to help students generate ideas or narrow them down? I’d love to hear from you!

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!
-Karla

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