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Answering the Creative Writing Question “What Do I Write About?”

Tips for Creative Writing Assignments

That was what my Top Ten Percent kids asked me when I assigned an open-ended or creative writing assignment. You would think it would be the other way around: the kids who made poor grades, who didn’t pay attention, who were absent more days than present – you’d think they would be the ones asking, “WHAT am I supposed to write about???” But no, it was the over-achievers, the straight A kids, the ones who always came in early or stayed late for tutoring – they were the ones with the forlorn faces and wrinkled foreheads when I said, “Pull out your pen, your paper, and your ideas. You’ve got 20 minutes to write!” You would have thought I’d said, “Toss your dog over the nearest cliff!” “Go take a stroll down the middle of I-20!” or Hand over your lunch – I’m hungry!” Same look.

creative writing, what do I write about

So, what’s a teacher to do when they want a baseline creative writing assignment, and they give students the freedom to choose their own topic, but the kids are paralyzed – afraid they’ll do it all wrong?

Creative Writing Tip 1: Try a Free Write

When encouraging students to complete a creative writing assignment consider a free write to take a little pressure off. Frame it like this: “Take out your pen and your paper. If you need more of either, I’ve got plenty in this basket. Ink is free, the paper is free.” SIDE BAR: And when they ask the all-important question, “Is this for a grade?” say “YES! Remember the grade you made either yesterday or three weeks ago – the one which dropped your average from an A to B or maybe even a B to C – or worse? Well, this is why we’re calling it a free write! You fill this page with your thoughts and turn it in as a substitute for the failing grade. It’s free!” Then, you get to decide to cancel the failing grade or sub in the free write as an “A” or “B”.

Creative Writing Tip 2: Encourage Them to Write About Whatever Pops in Their Head

Another creative writing tip can be to encourage them to simply write whatever pops in their head. This should resolve the questions "What do I write about?” Just take out your pen and paper and begin writing while your document camera or overhead projector gives them a bird’s eye view. My students would always smile when they saw, “I can’t believe these kids are asking me what they should write about. I don’t know! I’m concerned about my own writing. They are staring at me – still. It’s cold in here, but I hate asking the principal to turn up the heat because if I do, it will be 100 degrees in thirty minutes. I’m still worried about Chelsea. We argued as we were walking out the door this morning. I don’t like when we leave each other angry. I’m hoping she comes to my classroom at lunch. I brought an extra sandwich for her or I’ll share my salad. Salad. I’m bringing a giant bunch of lettuce next Monday and asking all the teachers in my hallway to bring something to contribute. Scott will bring croutons, Barney will bring fruit, Rhonda will bring craisins, and Rachel will bring chicken. I’m fortunate to get to work with nice people. I’m thankful for them. There are other things I’m thankful for too. Like these things…”

I tell them, “Now, you start. It doesn’t matter what you say – just put your thoughts down.” And they do. I set the timer for 30 minutes and we only have one rule: Don’t pick your pen up. Keep writing whatever pops in your head.

After time is called my paper is again displayed on the projector so all can see it. I ask them to help me circle possible topics. We identify the inequity of the temperature of the building, the inevitability of problems within families, creating a positive culture at school and work, and the power of gratitude. They do the same with their own papers. I give them the freedom to pass their papers around so others can identify topics and ask them to do the same for their peers.

When the students get their own papers back, they realize how many topics they’ve explored. They are surprised at their own thought processes! We talk about the writing process as the thinking process. I tell them this type of free write, or stream-of-consciousness writing, lets us in on what’s going on in our heads. We have to think about what we want to say before we say it!

It's an easy way to get students writing and thinking. It’s great for generating topics for other writings and a terrific way for students to understand themselves a bit better.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes! I’m cheering you on!

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