November 20, 2012

The Write Stuff

“Write about whatever you want to.”

For many students, this is a wonderful opportunity to craft a story that has been percolating in their imaginations for a while. Or a chance to write about the fantastic time they had over the weekend. But for many others, including many students dealing with executive function and attention issues, this blank canvas can also create the feeling of a blank mind and nothing to write about.

Without the guidelines of a set assignment, free writing can prove quite daunting. Children with executive function deficits often have trouble knowing where to begin any writing assignment, and a writing assignment with no set length or subject parameters can exacerbate this problem. At Engaging Minds, when our students come in and are struggling with a free writing or journaling-style assignment, our first step is to help them get started. Sometimes the mere act of putting a few words down on paper will help a student move past that initial panic that a wordless page (or screen) can produce.

This “preliminary writing” can involve generating a list of potential topics (something useful for future free writing assignments as well), working off a story starter that the tutor (or parent) provides (and that the student copies onto his/her paper or screen as the seed for the rest of the writing assignment), or just writing for a set period of time about whatever comes to mind (the key here is to keep writing without stopping).

It might surprise you to know that professional writers struggle with the terror of the blank page as well; the common term for this is “writers’ block.” Below are some tips from professional writers about how they overcome writers’ block; some come from an online writers’ forum, others from writers’ blogs. And the first tip is from an Engaging Minds student!

  • Get a book of facts, like something by National Geographic or the Guinness Book of World Records. Open to a random page and pick a random fact. Use that fact as a building block for a story.
  • Pick a photograph or an image in a magazine or online and describe what you see. Or write a fictional story about the image/picture.
  • Put together two random characters from books you have read or from history and set up a situation where they meet.
  • Watch part of a movie or tv show with the sound off and then write dialogue for the scene.
  • Don’t worry about your spelling or grammar or punctuation – you can always go back and correct that when you are done (and for many free writing assignments, since the point is to work on the ‘flow’ of writing and the generating of ideas, teachers often don’t correct these anyway).
  • Don’t judge what you are writing while you are writing it. It’s more important to keep writing than it is to make whatever you are working on “great.” That old saying “The great is the enemy of the good” holds true for free writing and journaling as well!

Some teachers will ask students to use a free writing assignment or journal entry as a jumping off point or initial draft for a more finished piece. Again, the main point of free writing is to give students (and sometimes professional writers!) the opportunity to commit their ideas to paper without allowing concerns about grammar, sentence structure, etc. to discourage the flow of their thinking. Organizing the thoughts, inserting proper punctuation and coming up with more interesting descriptors than “nice” can come during the revision process if and when the free writing piece is edited into a formal one.

In an upcoming blog, we will talk about more structured writing assignments, such as research papers, and how to help students with those. And if you have any suggestions for other future blogs – about writing or any topic related to education – please don’t hesitate to comment below.

In the meantime, we wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!