3 Ways to Jump-Start Reluctant Writers

IMG_1703My younger sister Brittany is a phenomenal writer; in school, she excelled in all subjects, including English, but I never saw her struggle quite as much as when she was required to keep a writer’s notebook. For me, writer’s notebooks had always been liberating. I kept one in my spare time after having read Ralph Fletcher’s A Writer’s Notebook the summer before sixth grade. This was not the case for my sister though who, at the urging of her teacher, would write, “I do not know what to write” for ten minutes straight. Her teacher would tell her, “You’ll figure out what to write after a while,” but she clearly didn’t know my sister who is not only brilliant but also strong willed and persistent. In turn, when I told my sister I’d be integrating writer’s notebooks into my classes, she groaned, saying, “I hated those things.”

Brittany’s PTSD was reasonable. When used without encouragement or prompting, writer’s notebooks can become tedious and painful. Students can easily learn to loathe this tool that should otherwise be fun and stimulating. In turn, when my students explore their writing, I make an effort to help fuel their ideas and interests through a variety of writing activities and exercises that oftentimes help even the most particular writers.

  1. Prompt Board: At the beginning of the year, I ask students to write 3-4 pages in their writer’s notebooks. This helps students establish a writing routine and it helps me to learn about my students quickly. That being said, many students stall when it comes to putting pencil to paper. After running into this problem early on, I began posting five writing prompts per week on the side of my main white board. These topics included personal questions about students’ interests or extracurricular activities as well as sentence starters and fictional scenarios intended to lead into creative writing. I compiled the majority of these prompts off of social networks like Twitter and Pinterest, but I also use sentences from my book talks during the week as prompts as well. I post these prompts on my website in a separate section so students can always go back and revisit the prompts from past weeks.
  1. Ideas Shelf: Teens love thumbing through the pages of oddly shaped writing books. One of my most well-loved books is a cube shaped book called The Writer’s Block, which has “786 ideas to jump-start your imagination.” That being said, there are plenty of fantastic average size books that I store on an ideas shelf, which also includes 642 Things to Write About, Now Write: Nonfiction, Now Write: Fiction Writing Exercises From Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, and 100 Quickwrites by Linda Rief. When stuck, students gravitate towards this shelf. In addition, with the help of my Writer’s Club, I am hoping to add a jar of words, images, and prompts this year for students to pull from whenever they are struggling.
  1. Self-Guided Activities: As the adviser of Writer’s Club, I always have trinkets on hand Rory's Story Cubes for StADato help students put their pencils to paper. Some of my students’ favorite toys include Rory’s Story Cubes, which are dice with small pictures on them. Students can toss a handful of dice and incorporate the images into a story. I also have a collection of old skeleton keys I bought at a craft store. Tied to each key is a tag with a sentence starter that discusses where the key might have been found or what the key opens. Another easy activity involves collecting paint strips from your local hardware store and having students write stories involving the absurd color names on each strip.  Finally, I love utilizing found photography like the pictures from Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children or old calendar images to get students thinking. I have a collection of small Dana Heacock calendar images, which are brightly colored drawings of New England scenery or objects.  These images oftentimes stir up students’ memories of childhood and lead to fantastic personal stories.

How do you help inspire your reluctant writers?  What methods do you use to jump-start their independent writing process?


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7 thoughts on “3 Ways to Jump-Start Reluctant Writers

  1. […] Writing Prompt Books: As the advisor of Writer’s Club, I can’t get enough of writing prompt books like The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas to Jump-Start Your Imagination by Jason Rekulak, 642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and 100 Quickwrites by Linda Rief. Not only do I pull them out during club meetings, but I use them as inspiration for class quick-writes, or to begin brainstorming for independent writing pieces. […]


  2. Colleen August 16, 2015 at 7:05 pm Reply

    I love all these ideas. I have a question about how your students use their notebooks: are students eventually working toward a polished piece? Are your prompts and unit, theme, or skill based? I guess I’m just wondering if students move these writing exercises beyond a first draft or if the idea is simply to generate writing and gain writing endurance? Either way, fabulous ideas! Thanks!
    -Colleen (9-12 HS English teacher in Vermont)


  3. shanakarnes August 14, 2015 at 6:53 am Reply

    Oooooh, I love all of these ideas! I have a similar “ideas shelf”, and one of my students’ favorite resources is the story-starter. I will be starting a prompt board, though–a great idea! 🙂


  4. Amy August 13, 2015 at 2:47 pm Reply

    Most writers who really do not think they have something to say seem to respond to Jeff Anderson’t “power writing” activity quite well. He suggests putting two random and unrelated words on the board. Students choose one word and then write about it for two minutes. Count the words. Then do round two with different words. Count again. The idea is to build stamina and fluency. Lots of different ways to use this strategy.

    Such a good post! Thanks.


  5. awelleducatedwoman August 12, 2015 at 9:53 am Reply

    Love these ideas!! I found that I have a lot of kids who love to argue, so we start with a (school appropriate game) of Would You Rather? Ex: Would you rather have a horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses? The kids start to defend their reasons out loud and then write a story about how they came in possession of the item, or how they would use it in their lives. Always hilarious.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. jackiecatcher August 12, 2015 at 6:02 am Reply

    LOVE this! I’ve already clicked through a bunch, and I cannot wait to use this. Thank you for sharing Karen.


  7. Karen Saunders August 12, 2015 at 5:39 am Reply

    My fifth graders love prepositional phrase and subordinate clause sentence starters. Writing fix has random prompts generators for them: http://writingfix.com/left_brain/Start_and_Stop_sub_clauses1.htm


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