How to teach students to come up with ideas for writing

5 Teacher Tips For Overcoming "I Don't Know What To Write About"

Feb 02, 2020

After spending all weekend working out the best way to teach a genre, locating the required resources and then executing the perfect minilesson, the last thing a teacher wants to hear when they send their students off to write is, “but I can’t think of anything to write about!”

Even when a topic is provided -which is the least preferred option for finding a writing idea- there are many students who still can’t think of  what to write.

So, what's their problem? Are they lazy? Are they just not creative? Is it something else?


What is going on here and what can we do about it?

The first thing I would ask you to do here is to reflect on the gradual release of responsibility (see image below). What explicit instruction (modelling/demonstrating) have you provided to students on how writers come up with ideas? What guided practice have the students been involved in? How have you built your students’ knowledge and capacity to enact this skill independently? Has it been a gradual release of responsibility or is it time to revisit some of the first phases of the Gradual Release?

Fisher and Frey's (2014) adaption of the Gradual Release of Responsibility

Just as we spend time teaching students about the structure and organisation of writing, we need to spend time teaching them how to develop an idea for writing in the first place. 

Your students might know everything there is to know about how to structure a narrative or a persuasive piece, but if they don't have an idea to write about -or their idea is weak or lacking thought- their knowledge of structure will all be for naught.

Author Jackie French says: “Thinking is the most important part of writing a story. A badly written story with fascinating ideas will be fun to read. But even the best writing in the world can’t make boring ideas into a good book.”

Why? Because, as Vicki Spandel (2013) states:

“Ideas are the heart of the matter. They influence- and are influenced by- every other trait. How we organise information, the voice with which we express ourselves, the words we choose, the way sentences flow, even the formality or playfulness of conventions: all, all are deeply, profoundly affected by the message.”


We can't assume that every student knows how or where to find ideas that are worth writing about. They need us to explicitly teach them.

In this blog I'll be sharing 5 teacher tips for helping your students find and build ideas for their writing.


1. Study mentors

As with any writing skill, I suggest you start by consulting the wisdom of some high-quality mentors. Read through their texts and then inquire with students about how they think the author came up with their idea.

Some books, such as Phil Cummings’ book Touch the Moon, include an author’s note telling the reader exactly how the author came up with their idea. Some authors, such as Mem Fox, have a Q&A section on their website where they answer the question every kid wants to know: where do your ideas come from? (Her answer: “real life; books; and feelings of the deepest kind”).

Other authors, such as Jane Godwin, have an explanation on their website for every book they've written. (Jane’s site is fantastic for this!)

To help you out with this, I've created a one page cheat sheet outlining where various published authors got the idea for their popular books. You can download a PDF version here.

 Click the image to download a one page PDF with more examples of where authors got the ideas for their books.


2. Create an ideas anchor chart

Get discussion going with your students about how writers come up with their ideas. Create an anchor chart to help remind them of this when they're stuck. Make sure you include ways the writers in your class come up with their ideas and then add some of the way published authors have come up with their ideas as well. Draw on some of the ideas from the published author PDF above to get the ball rolling and then add any news ways you come across. Be sure to let your students how YOU come up with the ideas for your own writing too :)

(FYI For a quick way to improve your own writing see this post I wrote on improving your writing in 2 minutes a day).

Remember to keep referring and adding to your ideas anchor chart throughout the year- you don't want it to become useless wallpaper!


3. Practice the art and skill of coming up with ideas

Provide visual prompts for students and encourage them to turn and talk about what it reminds them of from their own lives or from books or TV (the images on author Sue Whiting’s Instagram account would be terrific for this).

Get your students talking! Once they've had the chance to talk about things the picture prompt reminds them of, get them to write a list of possible ideas they could write about that come from this visual. Don’t force them to go on and write about it though! Just get them to focus on the skill of developing possible ideas. This is it's own muscle and needs to regularly flexed. Have students share the list of potential ideas they've come up with. Repeat this activity multiple times to warm up the ‘idea generation muscle’ in their brains.

You can do this for persuasive writing too. Give your students a topic and then ask them to generate potential arguments for and against. If I was writing to the council to ask them to fix the fence at my local dog park (true story), what might be some reasons I could give them?

Tell students you don't want them to write the whole persuasive piece, you just want them to write a list of potential reasons. By the end of a unit on generating ideas students should have a large number of options for persuasive topics they could write about -some given to them, some created by themselves- along with some draft reasons to support their argument.

Your students will then be able to go back through all these practice lists to select the topic they feel most passionate about. This is the one they should take further into a full piece of writing.


4. Practise developing ideas from words

Author Jen Storer says words are like magnets because they attract ideas to them.

Give your students a few words and get them to sit and think of possible ideas these words might conjure up. If a narrative contained the words ‘spray can, dog and boot’ for example, what could a possible story be? Have them talk about their ideas with other students and repeat the word generation activity multiple times. Use this activity to teach your students to think fast and accept any quality of idea at first. No filtering! Taking away the pressure of having to write an entire piece using the idea, helps your students to quieten their inner critic and throw more ideas at their page. It turns off the filter that constantly complains, 'no, that's a dumb idea I don't want to have to write about it'.


Try it yourself first and see what difference it makes to turn this filter off.


5. Engage students in Writer’s Notebook activities

The Writer’s Notebook is a writing tool that's designed to get students to notice the world around them. It encourages them to think about events, feelings, people and places from their own lives so they can use this as inspiration for their writing. As we have seen with lots of published authors, this is a common source of ideas for writing.

Visit the Oz Lit Teacher Writer’s Notebook Ideas slide deck for ideas on writer's notebook activities to use with your students. (You can print the ideas in this deck for use in your own class- don’t forget to add other activity ideas you have used to share with others).

To learn more about the Writer's Notebook check out the Writers and Their Notebooks series of author interviews on this blog. I've interviewed loads of published authors to find out how they really use their writer's notebooks when they're writing. It's a fascinating collection of interviews and insights.

See Jennifer Serravallo’s Writing Strategies book. She has a whole chapter on different lessons for developing writing ideas with students.


Final words

Ideas is the first trait in the 6+1 traits of writing because it influences all the other traits. It is central component of effective writing.

If you don't provide your students with explicit instruction in how to develop ideas for their writing, you can't expect them to successfully enact this skill independently. There's no getting around the fact that your students' writing will not shine without the foundational layer of strong and well thought out ideas.


How have you helped your students develop ideas for their writing? Share your thoughts on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group.


Related Blog Posts:



Spandel, V. (2013). Creating writers. Boston,: Pearson, p.63.

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