Do This Writing Assignment First

Journal writing instruction often relies heavily on pre-determined writing prompts, imperatives such as “Write about a time when you had to make a difficult choice,” or questions like “If you were an animal, what would you be and why?” Even though writing has always been something I enjoy, I have to say that I hate writing to most journaling prompts. It turns out that asking me to write about my most embarrassing moment is the best way make me forget every embarrassing thing I’ve ever done, at least until the next time I’m having trouble sleeping. And let’s be honest. So many writing prompts are just insipid. (Think: “If you had to wear a coat outside in the summer or a swimsuit outside in the winter, which would you choose and why?”)

Of course, writing to a prompt and staying on topic is a skill that’s critical for academic success, and I’m not saying that kids should never write to a prompt. When it comes to daily writing practice or journaling, though, there’s a much better approach. 

Kids need to be coming up with their own writing topics and learning to filter their own experiences for writing inspiration. In fact, that’s what most “real” writers do. Obviously, no one gave J.K. Rowling the parameters of the Harry Potter universe and told her to write stories about it. She called upon a lifetime of observation and experience when she wrote her incredible novels. My reporter friend who is featured on the local news station’s more lifestyle-oriented hour of programming says that she usually needs to come up with her own ideas for stories, drawing upon things she’s seen, read, or experienced. As a blogger and freelance writer, I’m constantly jotting down ideas for future posts and articles as inspiration comes to me. 

If we want our kids to be skilled writers, we need to equip them to do one of the most important things skilled writers do—generate their own ideas for writing.

That brings us to what I’d like to suggest as your first writing assignment for the year—the Journal Ideas list. 

There will probably be days when your student writer sits down to a blank notebook page with plenty of bright ideas for writing after a morning of getting fired up over a news story, having an argument with a sibling, or experiencing gustatory bliss at the new pizza parlor. There will be days though, inevitably, when the blank page feels intimidating and the words to fill it just don’t come as naturally. Those are the days this list is for. 

On the Journal Ideas list, your student should down write at least twenty things about which he or she has special knowledge or about which he or she could have something interesting to say. It helps to work alongside your student, creating your own list. 

To get you started, here are ten things I’d put on my own list:

  • High school marching band
  • Lessons I’ve learned about teaching
  • Books
  • Childhood friendships
  • Things I hate doing because I’m introverted
  • Family vacations
  • My dog Mimi
  • Art
  • Tina Fey
  • Best and worst gifts I’ve given my kids

On the days when writing ideas don’t come easy, the Journal Ideas list is there to remind your student of the interesting things he or she has to say. For the days when it still seems hard to get started, it helps to pick an idea from the list and then pair it with a writing purpose (entertain, inform, persuade, express). Isn’t it funny how the more specific we get with our writing topics, the easier it is to write? My high school marching band idea seems pretty broad and generic, but if I narrow it down to a certain writing purpose like persuasion, it becomes easier to write about. Sitting down to that topic and purpose, I’d likely write with a local government audience in mind, sharing how my experiences in marching band were critical in crafting the person I became and persuading the officials to adequately fund the local schools’ music programs. 

Encourage your student to keep revisiting the list. Creative thinking breeds creative thinking. Get your kid in the habit of looking for ideas to fill the Journal Ideas list with, and you’ll find yourselves much closer to where you’d like your writers to be, people who see inspiration in life and who are comfortable using written language to talk about the human experience.