Two Kinds of Writing Assignments for Student Essays and Reports

1. The topic has not been assigned. Students choose the topic.

2. The topic has been assigned. Students must follow the directions and stay on topic.

Teachers must find the right balance between these two methods when giving assignments.

These ideas will help when you do assign the topic… however they are especially helpful when your students’ topics have not been assigned. These methods are great for eliminating that sinking feeling that students feel when they do not know what to write about.

The Topic has Been Assigned

This is covered extensively in Pattern #13 and Pattern #14 of the “Pattern Based Writing: Quick and Easy Essay” writing program. Students learn TWO specific strategies for making sure that their writing starts “ON TOPIC” and finishes “ON TOPIC.” Students learn to focus on and follow DIRECTIONS.

The Topic Has Not Been Assigned

Freedom! Students have more freedom, and that means students have a lot more decisions to make. Students sometimes are not quite so thrilled when they discover that the responsibility for these decisions is… theirs.

If the topic has not been assigned, how are students supposed to come up with a topic? Where do good ideas come from? Will any idea do? Or does it have to be a great idea? All of these will be answered below and in the process… your students will become idea machines.

How to Come Up with Great Ideas: It Just Came to Me

Many of the world’s greatest ideas have come to people when they were not trying to come up with them. People ask, “How did you come up with that idea? It’s amazing!” And the other person replies, “It just came to me.”

Here Are Some Places Where Ideas May Just Come to Students

• hiking in the mountains
• taking out the trash
• taking a shower
• laying in bed right before falling asleep
• walking their dog
• grocery shopping with their mom
• stuck in traffic
• cleaning their room
• doing chores
• running an errand
• eating breakfast
• sitting in their backyard looking up at the stars
• daydreaming in class (It happens from time to time, so let’s put it to use.)

Each of the above activities is an activity that keeps a person busy, but does not require great focus or concentration. Often when a person is faced with a difficult decision or problem, someone will say, “Just sleep on it.” It is very likely the next day they will have come to a decision. This shows how so many of the great ideas come to us when we do not have the pressure or stress of trying to come up with a great idea.

The mystery writer Agatha Christie once said, “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” I rest my case!

Three Ways to Save that Great Idea for Later: Harness Those Quiet Times and Harvest a Bounty of Great Ideas!

What will students want to save? Here are a few ideas!

• Interesting words or phrases
• Colorful descriptions
• Things that happened
• Things people said
• Things they saw
• Ideas for stories
• Inventions
• Things they wonder about
• Things that seem impossible
• How they or someone else felt
• How to solve a problem 
• Something that was strange
• Something that was incredible

1. Scratch It

Many, many writers always have a pen and some scratch paper close at hand. Most any movie or television show where a writer is on screen, sooner or later, you will see the writer reach into his or her pocket, take out a pen and paper, and say, “Oh, I have got to write that down.” They know they can’t afford to wait until it is time to write, to come up with those great ideas.

Provide students with a “Scratch It Idea Sheet.” This is a handy way to make sure students always have a piece of paper handy to get down those great ideas.

One of the best places to keep a pen and paper handy is right next to the bed at night. The poet Carrie Latet said, “If I’m trying to sleep, the ideas won’t stop. If I’m trying to write, there appears a barren nothingness.” In other words, get students in the habit of not waiting until it’s too late. Let’s see how many of those great ideas your students can save.

What do students do with their collections of great ideas? They can create a piggy bank of sorts for great ideas. “The Idea Bank” Use a box or container and cut a slit or hole in the top. Have students decorate them to reflect their unique personality. At the end of the day, slide all of those scraps of paper with all those great ideas they have collected throughout the day in through the top. They will be amazed at how many ideas they have collected when they sort through them a month, or even a week later.

In order to save these great ideas for eternity, have students transfer them to the computer. Have students list the ideas in the order they get them, or they can organize these great ideas into categories using “a table.”

2. Record It

Another common way to capture all those great ideas is it to carry around a voice recorder. These days many cell phones and mp3 players also have the ability to be used as a voice recorder to store all those great ideas. Have students transfer these to paper or the computer.

3. Journal It

One last and very common technique that writers use is to keep a “Writer’s Journal.” In this journal they write down great and even not so great ideas that come to them. The journal gives the writer plenty of space to explore their many ideas. This then helps them decide which ideas they would like to turn into essays or stories. It also provides a writer a safe place to write in freedom, freedom from evaluation, judgment, and grades. It’s a place to write, but not a place where one must be correct. It’s a place for ideas!

Pin It on Pinterest