Entries Tagged 'Brainstorming' ↓

Library writing activities with kids

Head to the library for some kid-friendly writing activities!

By Daniella Dautrich

DO you ever get to spend an afternoon at a favorite coffee house to read, work, or do some lesson planning? Then you know there’s nothing like a fresh learning atmosphere to make old familiar tasks more fun and appealing!

If your kids are starting to drag their feet with writing assignments, plan a special writing day at your local library. With a little thinking ahead, you can create a memorable school day with your elementary-age children.

Interview a Librarian

The day before your library visit:

Set out a spiral notebook (or a clipboard with lined paper) for your child. Help him write a list of five interview questions for the local librarian. Be sure to leave several blank lines after each question for the answer.

Hint: Questions can range from work experience to educational interests to creative ideas. For example: How long have you worked or volunteered here? What kinds of books do you like to read the most? What do you think of the new library remodeling project?

At the library:

Find a librarian who doesn’t seem too busy. Encourage your child to introduce himself and ask his interview questions. If he lacks confidence about writing down answers on the spot, perhaps you can write down the librarian’s responses on scratch paper. Then find a study table where your child can fill in his interview sheet with neat, unhurried handwriting.

Brainstorm with Picture Books

The day before your library visit:

Decide on a topic for your child’s next writing assignment. Will she write a story about dogs and cats, or a descriptive paragraph about a ballerina? Once you’ve agreed on a topic, she can look forward to brainstorming with picture books at the library.

Hint: Check your library’s website, and make a list of book titles and call numbers the day before your visit. This will save time and energy with your little ones when you get there.

At the library:

Gather two to four picture books on your child’s writing topic, and find a comfortable reading area. As you look through the pictures (not the text), encourage her to make a word bank of words and phrases related to her topic. Illustrations of a ballerina might prompt her to write down hair in a bun, sparkling eyes, pink tights, black leotard, stretching, bending, reaching, tall, thin, and graceful. As long as she stays engaged in creating her list, try not to offer your own ideas. She will enjoy using her very own word bank when it’s time to finish the writing assignment later in the week.

Revise with Reference Books

The day before your library visit:

Make sure your child has completely finished the first draft of a writing assignment. When he gives it to you, circle or underline all the vague words, boring nouns, and ho-hum verbs and adjectives.

Hint: Younger children will need more help with this activity. Older elementary and junior high students should work independently, for the most part.

At the library:

Let your child research the call numbers for a thesaurus. Depending on the particular library and book title, he may need to peruse the reference shelves. When he has chosen one or two promising books, find a study table where he can revise his writing assignment from the previous day. Using the thesaurus, he can replace weak, low-information words with words that pop off the page and make the reader hungry for more.

Of course, most of these writing activities can easily take place at home on a rainy day. But I’m sure your family will appreciate a change of scenery and a change of pace when you share uninterrupted writing time at the library.

Photo: John Blyberg, courtesy of Creative Commons

Colorful ways to brainstorm with kids | Ages 9-12

Get creative when you brainstorm with kids ages 9-12: use colorful tools such as flashcards, highlighters, and sticky notes!

By Daniella Dautrich

BRAINSTORMING with your 9- to 12-year-olds doesn’t have to be a boring, black-and-white process. After all, brainstorming is about unleashing creativity. When your children were small, you probably encouraged them to share their thoughts openly, without fear of criticism. Brainstorming in the upper elementary years should be no different!

Why Brainstorm?

Unlike the editing stage of writing, brainstorming is a creative—not critical—process. When a businessman coined the term “brainstorming” over seventy years ago, he wanted to describe a process of coming up with lots of ideas, no matter how silly or wild they seemed. More ideas are always good, he thought, because ideas spark more ideas!

In the 4th through 7th grades, children become more comfortable with words every day. As they start to understand the building blocks of sentences, paragraphs, and essays, they also take notes and make rough drafts, pausing less often to ask, “How do I spell that?”

If you can instill a similar confidence in their abilities to brainstorm, you will overcome a major stumbling block to writing before it ever becomes a problem.

Children are naturally drawn to color. From math manipulatives to poetry, use of color helps memory and inspires creativity. Today, let’s explore three ways to creatively brainstorm with kids—with loads of color!

Colorful Brainstorming with Flash Cards

Perhaps you’ve instructed your son to write a how-to paragraph, such as “How to Make Pancakes.” The writing process should begin with a brainstorming session so he can build a list of steps. Why not spark creativity by using brightly colored flashcards instead of white paper?

Colorful Ways to Brainstorm with Kids {via In Our Write Minds}Spread the multicolored cards over the writing workspace. Ask your child to start writing down different steps of the pancake-making process, one step for each card. Encourage him to write down a step as soon as he thinks of it, whether not he happens to write it in order. When most of the cards are filled, he can rearrange them until he has built a high-rise tower of flashcards, from the first floor (“step one”) to the roof (“final step”).

Remember, this step of the writing process is about ideas and, eventually, organization. While your child should write down plenty of words, there’s no pressure to write complete sentences.

Colorful Brainstorming with Dry Erase Markers

When you ask your daughter to write a descriptive paragraph, she needs a flexible yet structured method for writing down her initial thoughts and ideas. That’s why I like brainstorming with mindmaps (or “idea clouds”). Why not let her color-code her ideas with a whiteboard and dry erase markers?

With a black marker, draw a bubble in the center of the white board, and write the main topic inside (such as “My Bedroom”). Then draw several lines, like spokes on a wheel, from the main circle to secondary circles. Let your child help you choose subtopics to write inside each new circle (such as “furniture,” “toys,” and “pictures on the wall”).

Now, set your daughter free to brainstorm with new lines and circles! Let her use her favorite colored markers for different parts of speech, perhaps a red marker for nouns and a blue marker for adjectives This will reinforce lessons on parts of speech, while allowing her to create a colorful map of her thoughts.

Colorful Brainstorming with Highlighters

In upper elementary years, students are often challenged to prepare a written response to a book they’ve read. The assignment may be a specific character study or simply a summary of the book’s narrative. Find an inexpensive paperback copy (perhaps from a used bookstore), and your student can begin the brainstorming process with colorful highlighters.

Decide on different colors for three or four main topics or themes.

  • For a summary, topics might be the main character’s “childhood,” “travels,” “family,” and “writing career.”
  • For a character study, themes might include “childhood struggles,” “mentors,” and “overcoming faults.”

Colorful Ways to Brainstorm with Kids {via In Our Write Minds}Before your student writes her first draft, have her go through the book and highlight key phrases with the appropriate color. (For added visual impact, encourage her to use colored sticky notes to mark highlighted pages so she can easily find them later.) Now she can outline her essay with all sorts of informative details from the book, instead of relying on memory.

As your kids get older, they probably won’t need more than a pen and paper to plan writing assignments—a few sheets of lined or blank paper for free-listing, mind-mapping, and re-listing should do the trick! While they’re young and bursting with energy, however, let them express their ideas in color whenever it’s time to brainstorm.

Your Turn

What brainstorming tools or tips have worked with your children?

Photos: Nina Matthews, Purple Sherbet Photography, and liveandrock, courtesy of Creative Commons

How to brainstorm with reluctant children

Encouraging your reluctant child to brainstorm with graphic organizers, lists, and mindmaps

DOES YOUR CHILD balk when it’s time to plan out a story or report? Does she tell you she’d rather just start writing? If so, read on! I’m sure you’ll relate to this question from the WriteShop mailbag.

. . . . . 

Q: When we brainstorm, my daughter wants to skip the planning part and jump right into the actual writing.

It’s frustrating for her to just put some of her thoughts down and not expand on them right then and there. She has a hard time stopping her flow of ideas. Any tips?

A:  As much as she wishes she could do so, it’s often counterproductive for a child to pour out her whole story in free-spirit style.

Without a plan, she has no sense of direction, and the story can quickly lose focus and disintegrate into a jumble of words. Instead, help her view brainstorming as a time of preparation—a part of the pre-writing process.

Teach Brainstorming Skills

If you always let your student write as the ideas come—and she never learns to slow down and plan her course—she’ll struggle with:

  • Rambling stories and disjointed essays 
  • Essays and reports that require summarizing and rephrasing of research so as not to plagiarize.
  • Long reports that, by their nature, should be spread out over many days or weeks.

Brainstorming with lists, mindmaps, graphic organizers

Brainstorming needs to be taught—even when your child digs in her heels.

Keep working with her to develop this skill of planning out story details. When she begins her actual story, she can flesh out her brainstorming into meatier sentences.

As assignments grow in length, it will become even more necessary for your student to plan first and write later.

Use Different Brainstorming Methods

There are many ways to brainstorm. When you’re not sure how to brainstorm with children, it’s good to experiment and try different ideas, such as the four listed here.

Brainstorm for Writing Topics 

Have your kids ever approached the blank page with fear and trembling? Often, it’s simply because they have no idea what to write about! This little activity will help them think of topics that interest them.

  • Set a timer for 3 minutes and have each child make a list of every idea they can think of—with no erasing or crossing ideas out! If they’re timer-phobic, you can do this without timing the exercise.
  • When finished, encourage them to look over their list and circle three ideas that would be the most fun or appealing to write about.

Make Lists

This is an effective brainstorming method for writing short reports about familiar topics. It’s also a great way to brainstorm about a personal experience.

  • On a large sheet of paper (or on a whiteboard), write the main topic.
  • Ask the kids to think of as many ideas as possible that relate to this topic. List all their ideas, even those that don’t really fit.

Sometimes your child may want to do the writing. But often, a young writer’s thoughts gush out like a firehose, and there’s just no containing them. If you can write as she talks, you can corral those random ideas on paper. Later, she can sort ideas into categories.

Make a Mindmap or Idea Cloud 

Use a mindmap to help organize main points and subpoints.Mindmaps are especially effective with spatial and visual learners.

  • In the center of the whiteboard, draw a  circle and write the topic inside.
  • For the main points, draw several lines that radiate out, adding a circle to the end of each line.
  • Ask who, what, when, where, and why questions to prompt the children. As they give ideas, write main points in the circles.
  • Subpoints can be written on additional lines that connect to their related main points.

Use Graphic Organizers

Graphic OrganizerGraphic organizers such as the one on the left are worksheets that help kids sort ideas and plan story or report details.

Traditional graphic organizers come in grids, charts, or idea clouds. But they can also take on more fanciful shapes, such as hamburgers or robots.

Both elementary and middle/high school levels of WriteShop include an assortment of worksheets. The younger levels include both traditional and whimsical graphic organizers.

Whatever brainstorming methods you choose, encourage your child to develop and practice different techniques. Brainstorming is a lifelong skill!

Copyright 2013 © by Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Brainstorm photo: Andy Mangold, courtesy of Creative Commons.

6 ways to strengthen your writing

Looking for ways to strengthen your writing? Try these tips for brainstorming and revising, improving word choice, and constructing better sentences

This article contains affiliate links for products we’re confident your family will love!

Content, style, and mechanics all play an important role in writing a strong essay, story, report, or article.

When we communicate on paper:

  • Our goal is to be thorough, accurate, concise, and concrete.
  • Our writing needs to flow well and make sense.
  • We have to guard against misspellings and sloppy grammar. These can distract the reader and water down our message.

Writers have dozens—even hundreds—of tips and tools at their disposal to make this process easier and improve chances for success. From time to time, I pick different ones to help you or your kids plan, write, or edit more effectively. Try these six ways to strengthen your writing:

1. Brainstorm Before Writing

The purpose of brainstorming is to plan ideas and jot down details to jumpstart your writing. Brainstorming can take many forms, including clustering, mind-mapping, lists, grids, and formal graphic organizers.

Instead of writing full sentences, it’s better to make lists of words and short phrases. Later, as you refer to your brainstorming sheet during writing time, your list of concrete words and other details will jog your memory and keep your writing from taking tangents. Brainstorming keeps you on track.

2. Use Different Kinds of Sentences

Try a combination of simple, compound, and complex sentences. This adds variety and improves the style of your writing. Here’s a helpful quiz on sentence types.

3. Choose Strong Words

Vivid, active, colorful words have the power to paint clear mental pictures and stir the reader’s emotions. When dull, vague, or overly used words clutter up your writing, replace them with stronger, more precise ones.

Dull: Isabella made a nice dessert.
Interesting: Isabella whipped up a rich chocolate mousse.

Watch out for boring words such as fine, nice, or good. Is it a good book, good friend, or good weather? Then express it more specifically.

riveting book, faithful friend, balmy weather

Avoid vague verbs such as cried, said, or went in favor of concrete ones:

The orphan sobbed, wailed, or wept.
Dr. Cooper ordered, whispered, or agreed.
The horse galloped, trotted, or raced.

Check that you haven’t repeated main words too many times. Use your thesaurus to find appropriate synonyms.

Finally, don’t choose words based on how long they are or how clever they make you sound. Otherwise, you run the risk of sounding arrogant. Long, fancy words aren’t always the best choice. Yes, it’s great to use a thesaurus! Just be wise. Pick the best words for saying what you mean.

4. Include Subordinating Conjunctions

Sentence variations can add interest and maturity to any piece of writing. Using subordinating conjunctions is just one way to vary sentence structure, often by combining sentences together:

I shop frugally. 
I save several hundred dollars each month.

Example 1:When the subordinating conjunction begins the sentence, a comma follows the dependent clause.

Because I shop frugally, I save several hundred dollars each month.

Example 2: When a dependent clause beginning with a subordinating conjunction comes at the end of the sentence, don’t separate the two clauses with a comma.

I save several hundred dollars each month because I shop frugally.

Either way, see how using because to combine two short sentences creates a single but more interesting sentence.

If this concept is new to you or your students, print out a list of subordinating conjunctions.

5.  Watch Out for Misplaced Modifiers

Avoid pesky misplaced modifiers—phrases or clauses placed near the wrong noun. To avoid confusion, position a modifier close to the word or phrase it should modify.

Incorrect: Hiking along the overgrown path, a tree stump tripped Fernie. 

Why is this wrong? Because the sentence implies that the tree stump was hiking along the path!

Correct: Hiking along the overgrown path, Fernie tripped over a tree stump.

6. Let Your Paper Rest

Everyone’s writing improves with editing, so no matter how great you think your report or story is, let it breathe for a day. Stepping away helps you become more objective about your writing. Later, you can proofread it for clarity, conciseness, concreteness, and errors.

What’s your favorite writing tip?

Creative Commons photo: Claudio Gennari, courtesy of Flickr.

Freewriting exercise: The Writing Well

When students have a deep “well” of words and ideas from which to draw, their compositions becomes more vivid and concrete.

Although it’s is one of the most necessary and helpful steps of the writing process, brainstorming can stump a reluctant writer—even if she’s using a worksheet, graphic organizer, or parent prompting.

You:    What comes to mind when you think of the beach?
Child: Sand and water.
Great! What else?
Child: That’s all I can think of.

And that’s on a good day!

Prime the Pump

When students have a deep “well” of words and ideas from which to draw, their compositions becomes more vivid and concrete. That’s why WriteShop repeatedly emphasizes the need for adequate brainstorming as a routine part of the writing process. But if their well is dry and they can’t come up with enough words or ideas, their compositions will fall flat.

To keep ideas fresh and flowing, students need to prime their writing pumps on a regular basis. By practicing frequent brainstorming—especially when there’s no added pressure to write a composition—they’ll discover that they can think of words more quickly and abundantly. An freewriting exercise like the Writing Well is a perfect training tool!

The Writing Well

The “Writing Well” is a freewriting exercise designed to stimulate vocabulary, ideas, and impressions on a particular topic. It makes a good pre-writing activity, but it’s really brainstorming practice in disguise!

Kept in a small notebook, these brainstorming results can also become a “seed book”—a resource, word bank, or collection of ideas—when writing future compositions.

Student Directions

  1. You will find it helpful to keep your “Writing Well” in a spiral notebook for easy reference.
  2. Use a separate page for each topic. You may use both front and back if you wish.
  3. Before beginning, choose a topic and write it at the top of the page. Then set the timer to write for five full minutes.
  4. The purpose of this exercise is to write down all the words, phrases, or sentences that come to mind about your chosen topic within the five minutes allotted.

If you get stuck, try some of these ideas:

  • Picture the topic in your mind. Use your five sensessight, sound, touch, taste, and smell—to describe details.
  • Ask yourself questions about the subject matter—who? what? when? where? why? how?
  • Use a photograph or magazine picture to jog your thoughts.

At first this activity may seem difficult. You may wonder: How can I write about one thing for five whole minutes? Relax! Over time you’ll find that it has become more natural to transfer ideas from your head to your paper.

Some of these exercises will lend themselves to becoming compositions. Put a colorful star at the top of the page if you might like to develop this into a paragraph or story in the future.

Parent Tips

In the beginning, your child may have trouble writing for five full minutes. Perhaps you could set the timer for three minutes, then increase it to four, and finally to five over the course of several weeks.

If your student brainstorms very generally about a topic, you might suggest next time that she narrow her topic even further. For example, if she writes on the topic of animals, she’ll probably include a list of many kinds of animals. Next time, have her select just one of those animals (such as dogs, monkeys, or whales) and make a “Writing Well” for that subtopic, including as many details as she can.

Should your student repeatedly make lists of words only, challenge her to begin writing descriptive phrases, too. Sometimes these will be factual and sometimes experiential. For example:

If she’s writing about “red,” words and phrases might include:

  • ketchup
  • stop signs
  • making Valentines for my family
  • embers glowing in the fireplace
  • fire engines
  • Dorothy’s ruby slippers
  • the crimson sunset on our vacation in California

If she’s writing about Grandma, phrases might include:

  • baking chocolate cookies together
  • lives in an apartment in Miami
  • smells sweet like roses
  • takes a ceramics class in her clubhouse
  • silver hair
  • favorite color is pink

The random list of “red” words and phrases probably won’t ever be developed into a paragraph. On the other hand, the “Grandma” list definitely has potential to become a great descriptive composition at some point.

Writing Well Topics

Are you ready? Dip your ladle deep into the Writing Well and pull up a full, soaking draught of words and ideas. Then spill them over a fresh page—and let the writing begin. Here are some topics to get you started!

  • a famous place I would like to visit
  • my dream car
  • gardens
  • books
  • animals (farm animals, jungle creatures, pets, birds, insects)
  • birthdays
  • the beach
  • fishing
  • obeying
  • snow
  • sounds that make me happy (nervous, afraid)
  • my childhood toys
  • my favorite meal
  • my grandpa (or other family member)
  • our pantry
  • Saturdays
  • things I like about myself
  • heaven
  • the color blue (orange, yellow, gray, green)
  • things that make me feel cozy
  • new uses for duct tape
  • If cars could fly…
  • If I had to live underwater…

Copyright © 2012 Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

. . . . .

“The Writing Well” is one of the supplemental writing activities tucked into the appendix of the Teacher’s Manual for WriteShop I and II.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr. Other photos courtesy of stock.xchg. Used with permission.

Modeling the brainstorming process

Working together during writing trains children in good brainstorming habits and teaches them to THINK before they WRITE.

You may think of writing as a hands-off subject: just give a child a piece of paper and a writing prompt and let him at it, right?

Well, not always.

You see, writing is a subject that must be taught in order for most children to learn and improve. A schoolteacher stands at the chalkboard, demonstrates writing methods, and explains new concepts. As homeschoolers, we may not actually stand in front of the “class” to teach a lesson, but our kids still need us to model for them at each point along the way—including the brainstorming process.


When you teach a child to make his bed or do his own laundry, first you show him, and then you do it together, before you expect him to complete the task on his own.

Working together like this during writing also trains children in good brainstorming habits. If you just hand them the worksheet and skip the part where you model various techniques on a larger writing surface, you’re missing a golden opportunity to teach them how to think before they write. Eventually, you can let the reins out a bit as they demonstrate their ability to follow instructions and brainstorm properly, but for now, make sure you’re working together.


Most children are simply not used to brainstorming. Unless they’ve been trained in the art of story planning, they’re much more likely to do one of two things when it’s time to write:

  • Freeze at the sight of the blank page and barely scrawl out a couple of weak sentences. The end result is little more than a mess of smudges and teardrops.
  • Try to move a massive swirl of ideas from head to paper but wind up losing their focus. They’re left with a rambling, disjointed story that has too many characters, irrelevant bits of storyline, and lots of rabbit trails.

(Yes? You have one of these children? I see you nodding your head!)

The goal of a brainstorming worksheet is simply to help jumpstart the writing. Graphic organizers aren’t meant for writing full sentences, but for writing lists of words and short phrases. As you discuss story ideas together and jot details on your larger example, your student can copy the ones he likes onto his own worksheet.

Later, when he refers to the worksheet during writing time, the list of concrete words and other details will jog his memory and keep his writing from taking tangents. Brainstorming keeps him on track.


Draw a large 9-grid on a whiteboard or other writing surface. Discuss ideas for the beginning of the story. On your large example, write down three details that could happen, one in each box. Talk about:

  • What could happen first to introduce the story;
  • What happens second; and
  • What happens next.

Have your child draw a quick stick-figure sketch in each box on his own worksheet that represents each of these details. He does not need to add words at this time, but if he does, he should just copy the simple details (again, not complete sentences) you’ve written on your chart.

Do the same for the middle of the story, jotting down very simple words/phrases that could happen first, second and third in the middle of the story.

For the ending, jot down what could happen first, next, and last to bring the story to a satisfying end.

If your student prefers not to draw pictures, that’s okay; he can write words. Just encourage him to write LISTS of words rather than complete sentences. (Brevity is key during brainstorming.) Then, he can flesh out his ideas when it’s time to write his story.

. . . . .

WriteShop Junior is a partnership between parent/teacher and student, because that’s how writing is best taught. Book D is the first in the series. You’ll love all the hands-on activities and tools, including a brainstorming worksheet and detailed instructions for each and every writing lesson.

Speak it, describe it, write it!

We’ve all experienced it. The blank page seems more foe than friend, whether we’re the ones facing that expanse of white or whether we’re encouraging our children to blast through writer’s block.

Sometimes oral descriptions can pave the way to written descriptions, gently opening kids to their own creativity. Try the following thinking game the next time your young ones protest, “But I don’t know what to say!”

See how many answers each child can think of for each item below. Keep an informal score for a friendly competition.

1.) Describe one thing you might see in a…

  • refrigerator
  • living room
  • closet
  • car

book shelf

2.) Describe two things you might find…

  • at the library
  • in a craft-supply store
  • on the playground
  • at an amusement park

park bench in autumn glow

3.) Describe something you see…

  • in the autumn
  • in the winter
  • at the beach
  • in a restaurant

Future - what will you bring me?

4.) Describe something you might wear…

  • in a rainstorm
  • to a costume party
  • on a snowy day
  • to play a sport

Now, have your children choose one of their oral responses and elaborate upon it in written words.

“Writer’s block? What writer’s block?” you’ll be mumbling to yourself, as the kids scribble away!

. . . . .

Janet Wagner is a regular contributor to In Our Write Minds. For over two decades, Janet was an elementary and middle school teacher in two Christian academies, a public district school, and a public charter school. She also had the honor of helping to homeschool her two nieces. Janet and her husband Dean live on the family farm in the Piedmont region of north central North Carolina. Currently, she enjoys a flexible life of homemaking, volunteering, reading, writing, tutoring students and training dogs, and learning how to build websites. You can view her web work-in-progress at www.creative-writing-ideas-and-activities.com.

Helping children write about a favorite memory

Lost in Thought

“But I don’t know what to write about!” 

“I can’t think of anything!”

How many times have we heard these cries of anguish when asking our children to face a blank page? And although we may do our best to encourage their creative efforts through the use of topic-specific prompts, sometimes we need to give kids more direction, more of a step-ladder to climb into the clarity of their own thinking.

Smaller Steps

The next time you’re faced with kids who are absolutely convinced the power of the pen has abandoned them, try breaking the prompt itself down into manageable parts. Doing so allows children to concentrate on one task at a time and to experience feedback in developing their ideas for written expression.

The “I Remember” Activity

Let’s use the prompt “Write about a favorite memory” as an example of breaking a writing topic into smaller chunks of ideas. This activity gives a feeling for the writing process approach and works well with any age.

Happy Little Fishergirl

  • Think of five things that have happened to you. Write down each of the five things, beginning with the phrase, “I remember.” When you’ve finished, share your ideas with me.
  • Now, write down one name associated with each of the five things you selected.
  • Write down the most important of the five senses (taste, touch, hearing, sight, or smell) that goes with each of your “I remembers.”
  • Now select the “I remember” you would most like to write about. Share the memory with me.
  • Now, writing as fast as you can for ten minutes, see how much of the memory you can get on paper. Don’t worry about punctuation or spelling; you can think about that later, if you like what you’ve written.
  • Now, let’s read your story and think of ways to possibly make it even better.

By tackling a topic in this step-by-step manner, students become more confident and skilled in the brainstorming and drafting stages of writing. And as they will discover, fluent writing flows from the power of knowing you have something to say.

. . . . .

Janet Wagner is a regular contributor to In Our Write Minds. For over two decades, Janet was an elementary and middle school teacher in two Christian academies, a public district school, and a public charter school. She also had the honor of helping to homeschool her two nieces. Janet and her husband Dean live on the family farm in the Piedmont region of north central North Carolina. Currently, she enjoys a flexible life of homemaking, volunteering, reading, writing, tutoring students and training dogs, and learning how to build websites. You can view her web work-in-progress at www.creative-writing-ideas-and-activities.com.

Creative Commons “Lost in thought” photo courtesy of Flickr.
Photo of “Happy Little Fishergirl” © D Sharon Pruitt. Used by permission.

Brainstorming: It’s like traveling with a plan

The brainstorming process gives direction and focus to writing. It's like planning and mapping out a trip before hitting the road.

Making the Most of a Road Trip

I recently overheard someone claim that teaching students to brainstorm is a futile exercise. “In the real world, no one actually brainstorms,” she said. “We just write.”

This statement surprised me, for it reminded me of taking a trip with little more than a vague notion of a plan (“I want to see the USA”). You can set off on your trek, but without a map, timetable, or sightseeing strategy, you’ll end up rabbit-trailing your way to your journey’s end.

While this may be fine for a bohemian, it can frustrate the traveler who really wants to visit a particular landmark but can’t find the turnoff; annoy her for missing some must-see points of interest because she lingered too long in a mediocre little town; and aggravate her when she finds herself going in circles. Worse, she could end up seeing nothing at all because she has absolutely no idea which way to go.

It’s fun to be spontaneous, but to get the most from a road trip, there’s nothing like an itinerary.

The Value of Brainstorming 

Like a free-spirited traveler, a writer may have a general idea of where he wants to go. He may even know a point or two he wants to make along the way. But without a sense of direction, he too will miss important details, spend unnecessary time on a trivial side note, or spin his wheels in one rut or another.

One of the most valuable pre-writing tools for launching the writing process and avoiding other pitfalls is brainstorming.

Students often struggle with knowing how to move from a general topic to a written essay because that paralyzing blank page stands in the way. Brainstorming is a problem-solving process that helps you:

  • Think freely and openly about your topic.
  • Put pen to paper as you write whatever ideas come to mind.
  • Explore possibilities and connections between ideas.
  • Let new ideas form and shape old ones.
  • Start to bring order and organization to your scattered thoughts.

Most importantly, brainstorming has no wrong answers. It allows you to think through your topic without fear of criticism or perfection.

3 Steps of the Brainstorming Process

  • FREE-LISTING: Free-listing helps you develop an initial page of ideas about the topic by writing absolutely anything—key words, phrases, examples, main points, subpoints, details, illustrations—that come to mind to jog your thoughts about your subject. Free-listing uses the heuristic inquiry, more commonly known as the 5 Ws (and an H)—who, what, when, where, why, how. Once this primary list is “complete,” note which of your ideas would qualify as main points or categories and which would be better suited as supporting details or examples.
  • MIND-MAPPING: Next, filter your free-listing ideas through a semantic mind-map. A semantic mind-map is used to represent ideas, words, or thoughts that are connected to and organized around a central key word or concept. Mind-maps are designed to help create, visualize, classify, and structure ideas.
  • RE-LISTING: Finally, organize your ideas according to the groups or clusters created by the semantic mind-map. Identify the central idea (main point) of the various clusters and list supporting details beneath and prioritize these clusters/main points into a logical order. Re-listing results in a rudimentary outline of your initial thoughts and ideas.

These three steps of the brainstorming process remind me of a coin-sorting machine.

You start off with a jumbled, disorganized pile of coins (ideas). Nickels, dimes, quarters, pennies—there’s no rhyme or reason to their scattered placement on the kitchen table. This is your initial attempt at free-listing.

To start putting the coins in their appropriate place, you gather them up and put them into a coin-sorting machine (semantic mind-map). The machine divides the coins (ideas) by kind, just like the bubbles of a mind-map divide your ideas by category.

Finally, watch as your coins come out of the sorting machine in rows of quarters, dimes, and nickels neatly arranged (re-list). In this way, putting your ideas through a mind-map will help you rearrange them into newly organized lists that set the priorities for your paper.

Taking the Trip

You think about the gazillion places you want to visit. You explore websites and sort through piles of travel brochures. Once you have a sense of where you’re going and what there is to see and do, you plot out a route and plan the details. Along the way you may take a detour or explore a new place, but you’ll never stray far from your original plan.

Because you took time to brainstorm, your readers will enjoy the journey with you—and will thank you for being such an excellent guide!

Copyright 2011 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

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9 tips to conquering the blank page

There’s nothing quite like a blank page to ruin a perfectly good day.

We need to put words to paper, but they will not come. The blank page intimidates us. The objects in the room call, our eyes wander, and our mind runs to places that are more desirable. We struggle to come back to the page with pen in hand. In the meantime, the white space has grown in intensity, until it is blinding. –Richard Mansel, “The Fear of the Blank Page

It can be a formidable foe, this empty field of white—especially for the child who struggles to coax even a short string of words from his reluctant pen.

Fortunately, there are simple things you can do to help the most reluctant student find his footing—or at least his voice. Let’s look at nine ways you can encourage your child to face (and perhaps even conquer!) that blank sheet of paper.

1. Write first thing. 

Consider starting the school day with a writing activity, while attitudes are still positive and minds feel more creative. Facing an unpleasant or challenging task earlier in the day—when your children are fresh and alert—may be the key to unlocking ideas.

2. Brainstorm separately before beginning to write.

Jotting down random thoughts—no matter how jumbled—can help release a log jam of words and phrases. Encourage your kids to brainstorm before beginning any writing assignment.

3. Set parameters for the assignment.

Few children find it freeing to hear: “Write about whatever you want.” The vastness of total choice can overwhelm even the most eager writer, so establish some boundaries for the assignment. For example:

  • Specify the kind of writing. Will the composition be a personal narrative? A persuasive essay? A descriptive piece?
  • Let students choose a topic within a particular genre such as mystery or adventure, or within a current area of study such as pioneer days or the Great Depression.
  • Give expectations regarding composition length or number of sources you require.

4. Offer story prompts.

StoryBuilders are creative writing-prompt cards that let students choose a character, character trait, setting, and plot as the launching place for a zany (or serious) story. Mixing and matching elements of a story can unlock creativity and open the door for some fun writing experiences.

5. Give topic options and choices.

Encourage students to write about favorite, familiar topicsdogs, ballet, skateboarding, Legos, karate, etc. The more they enjoy the subject matter, the more vested they’ll be in the writing project.

6. Start with a personal experience or familiar story.

It can make an excellent foundation for a new story. Your children don’t always have to come up with something unique—it’s totally fine for them to retell a fable, fairytale, folktale, or other familiar story in their own words.

7. Provide a photo.

Pictures—especially those that “speak a thousand words”—make great prompts for generating story or narrative ideas. When searching for photos online, you’ll want to preview sites for appropriate content. That said, consider finding inspiration from one of these:

8. Do some or all of the writing.

By the time a thought makes its way from brain to hand to paper, the reluctant or learning-challenged student has lost her grasp on the idea, and it simply drifts away. Letting her dictate allows you to capture those words before they dissipate. Then, once they’re written, she can more easily rearrange and modify.

9. Encourage a “rough draft” mindset.

Students who think their first draft should be perfect can gain a lot from adjusting their thinking. Writing is a debugging process. Starting sloppy deals a blow to the blank page as the student plays with early ideas and gets into the writing flow. As author and poet Margaret Atwood so aptly put it: “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”

A blank sheet of paper may intimidate reluctant writers, but overcoming their fear and conquering the blank page are possible!

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