You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.
— Neil Gaiman

Seiya stared out the window. Mrs. Jennings asked students to write down four possible topics they could research for their next nonfiction writing piece. What could he write about? Hmm . . . That bird in the maple tree looks interesting. What kind of bird is it? Those leaves look different from the cherry trees at home. Wait! Why did that funny squirrel run down the tree headfirst? Suddenly it was time to turn in his list. Seiya’s paper was blank!


First, the Idea

Does Seiya’s predicament sound familiar? Like any author, students must begin by deciding what to write about. Using the content areas to generate topics is a natural way to write across the curriculum. But content connections do not have to lead only to a nonfiction report. Students must get past the “ten facts I learned about . . .” type of writing. A content-area topic can, in fact, inspire narrative writing. For instance, your ocean unit may attract the interest of a student, prompting him to pose questions about the type of sea life supported by low-level light and cold, deep waters. He could then do a presearch (or test run) to answer his questions and narrow his focus. Using facts gathered from further research, he could fictionalize an adventure at the depths of the ocean.

What if students need a new topic for writer’s workshop in which the sky is the limit? Students may choose from a range of genres, but thoughtful consideration of the topic can help them prepare to write. A narrative story that takes place in a particular time period needs specific imagery to transport readers there. Nonfiction needs accurate facts so readers can learn. Poets must use compelling words to convey feelings, ideas, and moods in their poetry.

Think about the books you recently read and loved. What presearch and research might the authors have undertaken before writing? They may have read a book, watched a documentary, or interviewed experts. Narrative characters may have evolved from real-life relationships. Confronting a puzzling fact may have generated nonfiction. The beauty of a flower may have inspired a poem. Analyzing the works of authors provides a mentoring opportunity for students. They see authors’ final products, such as published books, but may not understand how an author selected a topic, asked questions, and did research to arrive at that story, poem, or other literary work.

To help students come up with topics, encourage them to keep a three-ring binder in which they can collect ideas for future writing projects. They can even add pictures from newspapers or magazines, or their own personal photographs to inspire their thinking. An interesting headline, a movie, a short story by a well-known author, or a summary of a book they read could help generate ideas for their next writing topic. Joyce and Tallman (1997) remind us that students need topics that engage them to sustain their interest throughout the research process. “When students have more choice and control of a project than they’ve ever had before, they become curious” (Gardiner, 2004, p. 68). Where else might ideas come for these “sky is the limit” topics? David shares how this happens in his life.

David Shares: Wherever I Go

Wherever I go, if I think I might have a few minutes of down time, I make sure I have a book or my pen and pocket pad with me. During one long night sitting in an emergency room with my mother, I wrote an essay for Sylvia Vardell’s book, Poetry Aloud Here. It pays to be prepared!

As the saying goes, “Not all readers are writers, but all writers are readers.” Most of my writer friends spend much of their time with their noses in books. Virtually anything a writer reads may be put to use sooner or later in a new form. A newspaper clipping inspired my picture book Piggy Wiglet. A Menza quiz in an American Airlines magazine led me to the poem “Today’s Thought Problem.” Reading about frog sounds worldwide was the source for the poem “Frog Chorus.” We never know when someone else’s writing will blossom in our minds into fresh and exciting ideas. This is one of the most compelling reasons for encouraging young people to develop a passion for reading. All those thoughts and plots and connections and mind pictures that dart and soar through the pages of books hold the power to excite imaginations and help us understand our world a little better. But there are times, too, when research needs to be more deliberate.


Where to Find Ideas

In our experiences of working with teachers and students, the topic-selection phase of writing can be a big hurdle. We might offer ideas (e.g., a day in the life of a firefighter, zoo animals, how plants grow), but students may not be excited enough about any of our ideas to carry them through the writing process. We know that “initial topic choice is critical to deeper thinking, richer writing, and more powerful performances” (Allen & Swistak, 2004, p. 226). Students need a variety of ways to generate topics of personal interest. The importance of this step cannot be understated.

Teacher Shares: Maria Blair, third-grade teacher

Our class went on a field trip to Tri-Rivers, a tech high school, and to author Shary Williamson’s house, the “home of the Woodland Elves.”

When we returned, we shared our memories of the day. Students then used these memories to write about our field trip. They could pick one of the two places we visited. Those who wrote about our trip to Tri-Rivers wrote very factual pieces (with opinions thrown in), while those who wrote about our visit to Shary’s house let their imaginations soar. Many of them said they saw elves. They said this even as we were walking through the path at Shary’s house. Third graders definitely have vivid imaginations.

Weeks later, we used our memories from our visit to the “home of the Woodland Elves” and our imaginations to write fairy tales involving elves. We then collected these stories into a book and presented it to Shary.

Here is one story written by a third grader, inspired by memories of her field trip:

The Elves and the Bad Cat

Once upon a time in a magical forest, there were two elves named Barelycrumb and Beanpod. There also was an evil cat named Lucky. Lucky the cat was evil because he always tried to catch the elves. One day the elves were walking in the forest when suddenly Lucky the cat magically appeared. The elves were scared. They ran to the village and told everyone to go into their houses as fast as they could. Barelycrumb yelled, “Lucky is catching up!” Barelycrumb and Beanpod raced into their house. They looked out the window but Lucky was gone! They went back outside and went to the magical forest to take a rest. Then Beanpod suddenly had an idea. They would make a trap to catch Lucky. They went to the magical forest and waited for Lucky to come. Then Lucky came and the elves ran toward the trap. It was elf-proof because they were so light. Lucky got stuck in the trap but Lucky was too heavy so he fell out. Barelycrumb and Beanpod ran into their house as quick as they could. Then Lucky got his paw stuck in a low branch. Barelycrumb and Beanpod ran toward Lucky and they chased him away with their powers and Lucky was never seen again.

David Shares: Analyzing Possible Topics

People are forever suggesting books that I should write. Something comes up in conversation—about a tall building or a noisy sneeze or an oddly shaped hat—and someone is sure to say, “You should write a book about the world’s tallest buildings (or all the ways that people sneeze, or the oddest hats in history).” Most of the time it’s easy to pass, but now and then I stop to think about a suggestion. Does the idea appeal to me? Do I think an editor would like it? Has it been done before? What do I know about the subject?

When I silently go through my list, I’m performing an early stage of presearch. Asking myself questions helps me decide if I might be interested in writing a book about the suggested idea. The key question is, “What do I know about the subject?” The more I happen to already know about it, the more likely I am to feel comfortable taking it on. “What do I know about the subject?” helps me set my compass, judge whether I would like to know more, decide if I think I could do a good job.

In these three examples, I know more about tall buildings than I do about weird sneezes and strange hats. I also know that tall buildings don’t excite me. I know enough to know that I don’t want to write a book about them. I’ve seen some crazy hats but mostly just pictures of them because hats aren’t as popular as they once were. So I know enough to decide that hats would not appeal to me or to an editor.

But sneezes? Hmmm . . . Might be fun. I knew a woman who, when she sneezed, sounded like a bobcat screaming in pain. She startled me even when I knew she was going to do it. I know other people who can block their sneezes—pffft—so you can hardly hear them. There are raucous sneezes and mewing ones, wet sneezes, and . . . Yep, I might want to give sneezes a little more thought.

At this point I sit down and start a list of what I know about sneezes and sneezers. Almost immediately I discover that some of what I know, I know for sure. But some of what I think I know, I’m not positive. My list becomes two lists—one about what I’m sure of and one about things I need to check out.

As students learn to use the process of presearch, they’ll find that the more natural it becomes to them, the better their results are likely to be. There is nothing mysterious about making a list of what we know about a subject. There is no right or wrong way to do it. No one is going to be tested on it. This is how a writer approaches a subject!

Are you ready to explore choosing a topic with your class? Get started with the free mini-lesson in the Featured Reproducibles section below!