There are few things I dread more than staring at a blanking page with a flashing cursor. There are just too many possibilities. Too many decisions. Too much potential. Too many ways it could go wrong. When your child has writing homework, getting some stuff on that blank page as quickly as possible can jumpstart their writing and build some momentum.
The other problem I see often is writing that gets started quickly and finished quickly. So quickly that it is brief and leaves the reader with many questions. That can be challenging too, because once some students believe they are done, there is little we can do to change their minds! So if you are trying to help your child find enough ideas for their writing, or ideas to expand their writing, read on!
I like to do this before they have tried to write a draft. If they tend towards short or undetailed writing, it helps to do this process before they write.
Here’s what I tell my students.
Content, not filler
Start by listing as many different ideas as you can about your topic.
If you have to identify a character’s traits, think of every word that might describe the character, or something she did. Hint: Google a list of character traits and see what sounds good.
If you’re writing about the causes of the Civil War think about each group involved (Union army, Confederate army, enslaved people, Abraham Lincoln) and try to list causes from different perspectives.
The important thing at this stage is to write down a lot of very, very bad ideas. Go for quantity here. You want as many ideas as you can because when you throw out the stinkers you will hopefully find some treasure! This also stops writers from using the first couple of ideas that come to mind, when there might be a much better idea in there somewhere.
If you are a parent helping a child with this process, you can help by offering to write notes while they brainstorm. You can also seed the list with some ideas of your own (but try to give your child time to come up with some the best ideas for themselves).
The list can be typed or written, but my brain has better storms on paper. Your mileage may vary. Post-it notes are nice for students who need help chunking information into individual facts or ideas, or for students who like to physically move information around to organize it.
Where do ideas come from?
Use the text you’re writing about (book, story, poem, movie, etc) to come up with ideas. If you’ve been taking notes while you read, flip through the text and read those notes. Anything important?
If you come up empty handed, how about your class notes? Did the teacher mention this topic? What seemed important?
Dangerous places to get ideas
The internet is also called “the information superhighway.” And just like an interstate highway, it can take you just about anywhere you choose to go. There is an unimaginable amount of information out there, including pages for people just like you who need more ideas for a paragraph. Stay away from:
Essay mills. There are lots of essay services that will sell you a finished essay for a price. Some even offer “free” help in the form of things you can download. This is a dangerous road to go down. It leads to plagiarism. Remember, if you can find these essays online, so can your teachers. Instead of spending your time looking for a way to not do the writing, just keep reading and we’ll help you get started!
AI. There are lots of options for artificial intelligence that will do your writing for you. Magical, right? Except, have you ever heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out”? ChatGPT can do some impressive things, from rhyming to generating sentences, or even a whole outline! But it also “hallucinates,” a term for when AI makes things up (including references with links that don’t go anywhere!) in response to a question.
ChatGPT or other AI writing tools can be useful brainstorming tools, though. I like to ask AI for a “list of essay topics about” whatever I’m thinking about. Or you can ask for examples, like “sentences using prepositional phrases” or something else you need ideas for. But please, please, rewrite any ideas you get from AI in your own words, and fact check any information it gives you.
Narrow it down
If you followed my plan, you now have a list of more ideas for a paragraph than you can possibly use. Now it’s time to narrow it down.
The first part of this is pretty easy. Remember those really bad ideas I told you to write down? If they are still the worst ones, cross them out!
Get your list down to 2-3 main ideas or pieces of evidence that you are going to use in your writing assignment. Sometimes your best ideas will jump right out at you. Other times, you will need to closely compare 2 ideas (which one has more evidence?). You might also combine two related but wimpy ideas into one MEGA-IDEA (what do they have in common?).
Then take your best ideas and organize them into a paragraph. You can use a simple paragraph structure, like:
- Main idea, 3 important details, conclusion
- TBEAR for writing with text evidence
Keep it up!
Once you have picked out your best ideas and identified the main idea that connects them, you are more than halfway there. If your paragraph still looks too short, read each idea in your paragraph. After each one, ask yourself “So what?” or “And then what?” to see where you might be able to expand or add detail.
Once you’ve got your ideas organized into a paragraph, don’t forget to revise and edit. Download my revision and editing checklists below.