I don’t know what to write about.

Anonymous Student

How many times have we heard this comment? Finding ideas for writing is hard work for all writers. When we place students in the role of real writers we expect them to choose many of their own topics for writing. We can open up a whole world of possibilities by sharing with our students some of the ways other writers find ideas.


Books and Other Texts

Books can trigger new ideas, provide inspiration for characters and much more. Reading aloud to students, sharing a variety of texts and making sure students have texts they can read on their own or in smll groups, is one of the best ways to help students find their own ideas for writing. Let students know that it is okay to take ideas they discover in other writers, as well as techniques that they love, and use them in their own writing as long as they are not copying.

Writer’s Notebooks

Encourage students to keep a writer’s notebook. The idea comes from the lives of professional writers who often keep notepads close at hand to record ideas, words, thoughts, even dreams... as they come to mind. It is an essential tool for the writer.

Some writers add newspaper clippings, sketches, or quotes to their journals. Others include photographs or make lists. Students can add anything that inspires them. The notebook has the potential to unleash creativity and promote many ideas for writing.

More ideas for using writer’s notebooks with students can be found here.

Personal Experiences

Use the shared events of students’ lives to inspire writing. When a student comes into class with a handful of worms, a skinned knee, or exciting news, these events can inspire writing. Students need to know that the little and big events of their lives are worth writing about- and that they are a rich source for new ideas. Some of these ideas will become finished pieces.

The death of a friend became a serious inspiration for one grade 6 student’s writing. The piece was included as the dedication in a student magazine.

When an elementary Cycle One student learned to ride his bike for the very first time, this became something to celebrate and write about.

A trip to Walmart with her mother became the seed for a piece by one student that gave her teacher an opportunity, in a quick writing conference, to help her make her writing stronger by adding details.

Experiences of Others

Encourage students to observe life aroud them. Students can learn to listen to conversations of others and make notes on interesting expressions, turns of phrase, even accents and tone. Not only is this is a good technique for inspiring writing, but also for creating authentic dialogue as well. An extract from an overheard conversation on public transportation can become a short story.


A quickwrite is an opportunity for students to write freely for a brief period. Quickwriting has 3 elements: concentrating on getting ideas down, not worrying about form and writing without stopping.

The idea is to let the writing flow. Just start writing. Write anything! It doesn’t matter. Don’t edit, don’t pause, don’t think.

Quickwrites should not be graded or marked. Grading would defeat the purpose of encouraging students not to worry about form. Some quickwrites might be developed later into final pieces.


Brainstorming is similar to quickwriting in that the flow of ideas is more important than quality. Within this brainstorm of ideas, there will be some good ideas for writing. Brainstorming can be done individually or in groups. Ideas can be in collected in many ways, including on big sheets of paper or using mind-maps or other graphic organizers.

Photographs, Art and Illustrations

Images have the power to unlock students’ imaginations and help them express themselves through written language.

Have students bring in a personal photograph that is significant to them in some way. It might be a family gathering, a photo of a child and her/ his grandparent, a sporting activity, or a day at the beach. The ideas are limitless. The content of the photograph does not really matter as long as it is important to the student. What does matter is that the students are writing about topics they know and care about.

Abish was a grade 4 student who struggled with reading and writing. It was very difficult for him to get any words down on paper.

His own personal photographs of a trip to Sri Lanka provided a context for talking and writing.

As Abish began to talk to his teacher about the photos, he was able to organize his thoughts and he started to write.

When he realized that important parts of his trip were missing from the photographs, he included drawings and added extra text and details to his writing.

The process was slow but the photographs and the talk he engaged in with his teacher, were essential to his success.

The final draft was edited by the teacher for spelling and punctuation and was published for other students to read.


Learn more about the Reader/Writer’s Notebook.


© 2023, Literacy Today