Five Strategies for Writing

One of my objectives as a teacher is to have my students write every single day.

It’s also one of my goals as a writer. Even if I don’t hit publish on it, I sometimes need to “empty out the trash” in my head to get to the story “behind my eyes.”

Over the years I have used a bunch of things to generate content–including prompts–but I have found giving students (and myself) a strategy instead of a topic opens up the gates for MORE content and better content because it’s self-generated. This means that whatever it is that gets written about is something that the writer wants to write about and is personal.

Below are five strategies* I use often with my students…and for myself.

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Write from a List

Many of us do this, right? Some of us keep little notebooks or scraps of paper or we use our drafts folder, but we have a list somewhere of possible blogging topics. Sometimes I just sit down and make Top Five Lists: five best experiences of my life, five worst experiences of my life, five things that surprise me, five things I love about my husband, five things I’ve done lately, five places I’ve been, etc.

After making a list I choose something to just freewrite about. You should see my draft folder. It’s a hot mess. There are started posts, there are posts that have lists in them with freewriting with them. I go to those posts and read around for something that inspires me and I often cut/paste stuff into a new post and boom! Something to hit publish on!

Writing off Literature

This is one I use with my students a lot and have recently found works well for me too. Writers are readers…at least they should be. I think it was Stephen King who said that if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write; his point being that you can’t be a good writer without reading.  Writers live and breathe via words both taken in and written out.

“Good readers are thinking while they read,” and not just about the plot, but about the ideas. “Stories inspire stories.” Ideas inspire ideas.

You could even expand this to be Writing Off Lyrics or Poetry or Articles.  I get inspired by speeches and sermons and news clips.

Again I have quotes from these sources in draft–some with freewriting, some not–just waiting to be fleshed out.

Writing from a Word

This one is fairly simple: you pick a word, write it down and freewrite about it. I give my students a part of speech to pick like, “choose a verb, write it at the top of your paper.  Now write.”  It sounds so elementary, but when I do it myself (usually I pick a FEEEEELING word, but sometimes I choose something a students said, or a word I read, or something one of the boys said, whatever), I find I can get some of my best writing.  I’ve even written some not too shabby poetry that way.

Lifting a Line

This is one I have already alluded to in previous strategies. The idea is to go back through your writing (could be published or not) and “lift a line” that jumps out at you. Take that line and write it at the top of your entry. I’ve had students (and myself) do two things with this. Either write from that line as inspiration OR use that line exactly somewhere in a new piece.

I’ve also used this in class (and on my own) in conjunction with Writing off Literature. Pick a line from a text and either use it as inspiration or quote it in your piece.

Three by Threes

Choose a noun and give yourself three minutes to write as many three-word phrases about that noun as you can.  For example “School” could be the noun and a three-word phrase would be “seven period days”. The idea is to focus on the subject. It narrows down broad subjects.

Sometimes as writers we know we want to write about a big topic, but if we just start writing, soon we have 1,00+ word posts that no one will want to read! If you want to write about pregnancy, maybe give yourself three minutes to come up with as many three-word phrases about pregnancy as you can.  This will help you find a more focused subject for a post.

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Hopefully you will find that these strategies help you if you get stuck. I have great success with them producing better writing from my students than just handing them a generic prompt that they may or may not care about.  All of these strategies start from personal choice and head into personal writing.

Have you used any of these strategies before? How do you come up with your blogging/writing content?

*Names for strategies and quotes come from the book Notebook Know How by Aimee Buckner (not an affiliate link). I have used all of these strategies myself and with my students.

It’s Personal

Friday I did something that I wasn’t sure was a good idea, but that I felt I needed to do. I made a snap decision to be vulnerable with my seniors.

I read them my post about depression.

Having never read any of my own personal writing out loud before, and certainly not in front of a bunch of teenagers, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But they all listened intently. In fact, I could feel their listening, if that makes sense.

I was nervous, had no idea what to say to introduce the piece, and knew less what to say or do after I finished. One hour was super quiet. One hour gave me a huge round of applause. One student hugged me. Once I cried.

Why in the world did I do this?

I am trying to teach them to write personal narratives.

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The Common Core Standards (which we use) say that the students will, “write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.”  Under that main standard there are five sub-standards based on structure and technique and language.

Pretty generic, but I am Ok with that. It leaves it up to the department/teachers how they want to teach the standard.

We decided to start the year with personal narratives and the prompts we give the kids to choose from are ones that are common on college applications: about important experiences, people who impacted them, the communities they are part of, etc.  The idea is that they are not just writing for a teacher, but for a more “real” audience.

That aside, I want these narratives to be good.

I want my students to dig deep in their souls and pull out something meaningful and powerful. I want them to bleed onto the page. I want them to be so good that I scramble to figure out how to have some sort of public presentation for them to read and share their awesomeness.

I dream big when I dream of my students’ success.

But first we have to start at the beginning.  The blank sheet. The empty document. The blinking cursor.

I started by giving them real examples of student essays–ones we found through a website devoted to helping students write quality entrance essays.  Learn by example before doing, right?

They read them, we talked about what we noticed, but I didn’t feel that they really knew what I was asking. Sure they could tell me that “showing not telling” was important and that the great essays they read did more showing that telling, but I wanted them to do that in their writing too.

I knew they recognized good writing, but could they do it?  I believed so.

But they needed to hear something by someone they knew and could relate to personally. They had to know the person behind the writing.

They  needed to be inspired.

Since this is my first year teaching seniors, I don’t have samples to draw from past years; and besides, it’s always more powerful to have someone you know read their work.

I could tell on Friday that while my students accepted that their first paper assignment was this personal narrative, they were not planning to dig deeply for it.

So I walked over to my computer, loaded up the blog, printed my post, and stood before my students.

And I read my story.

As far as form goes, it was not the best example of what they needed to write. But it was exactly what I wanted them to do with vulnerability and voice.

After I read it, I asked if they understood what I meant by choosing something personal. Not something private, but personal. They nodded, but to find out, I had them each brainstorm ideas for each prompt on their list using lists. The next day, I had them choose one of the ideas they had from one of the prompts and fastwrite about it for 7 minutes.

I asked them to look at their fastwrite and underline/highlight/circle things they liked: ideas, words, phrases, sentence structure.  Look just for the “lovely” (to borrow a phrase from her) in their “bad” writing.

The next day we mapped. Our district teaches all students how to use eight different thinking maps.  The hang in my room on a wall and I routinely see students staring at them deciding which one will best help them manage their thoughts on a subject.

I gave them examples of how they could use a variety of the maps to plan their narrative.

Today they are writing.

Writing and writing.

I’ve looked over shoulders and held netbooks with drafts hammered out on them. Some are bad. Some are Ok. Some have that thing…that shimmer of potential of greatness.

Some students are focused. I see them stare off biting a nail, earbuds in while they think of the next thing they will type. Some are distracted and discussing what happened at lunch.  Drafts are due to me by Friday.

I am going to do everything in my power to look at each. To come up with a good plan for revision. To teach my students to help each other.

But that is another post.

For now, they are writing narratives.

Narratives that I hope they will want to read and be applauded for in front of their peers.

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