One of the problems my students most often bring to me when I assign new work is their feelings of inadequacy around being asked to choose a topic. For some, it’s that they think they will not pick something important enough. Others worry their top choices will not be researchable, or else that they will step on the teacher’s toes with their choice of topic. Landing on an idea is difficult, and reaching reflexively for old standbys leads to the creation of essays that contribute no original thought and that, therefore, leave the teacher with little to positively evaluate.
It’s not any easier with creative writers. As a young student, my biggest problem was trying to figure out how to find subject matter, because I felt like my lack of knowledge about some of the things I was interested in writing kept me from seeing the world and capturing it. Only a graduate level screenwriting class that taught me how to capture a sensory stream in direct language helped me to connect the stories in my head to what I could produce on paper and to realize that my brain was already making connections and doing the thing when it came to new material. I couldn’t turn it off, it was doing it just to stay occupied.
What students and workers need to realize about the documents they are being asked to create is that they are essentially doing the same thing. They should not focus so much on a topic, they should focus instead on showing the reader how they solved a problem or worked through a line of thinking about a particular issue. In many cases, this is simply a matter of matching purpose to an initial vague topic. For some, though, this means helping them to reconceptualize writing as communication and to encourage them to create a long-form communication that prioritizes their line of thinking. That’s because all too often, the people who have the most questions about topic generation are the ones who have been taught to view writing as a thing that is extracted from them to measure whether they have absorbed information or not. That is different from communicative writing, and it often involves shortcuts like definition and fill in the blank exercises that do not even require the student to put together whole sentences of thought about the topic.
That’s not the student’s fault, but it is a problem, so it is one we tend to work on together.
Idea Generation Exercises
Realistically, no student should ever be put into a situation where they have such an open-ended assignment that they don’t know how to formulate a response to the prompt. Unfortunately, though, in writing classrooms we regularly encounter that as the go-to reflex for teachers hoping to encourage students to explore genres that are actually going to be useful for them. Sometimes it is done to great effect, and the supplemental instruction makes the assignment specific in a way that gets around the problematic parts of giving beginning students open-ended assignments. Sometimes, though, it’s not. Even worse, sometimes these kinds of too-open assignments are actually intended to evaluate the mastery of the material in core courses. In job situations, this can be a problem encountered in open-ended evaluations or low-information calls for solutions to problems. Here are a few ways to break through the issue:
- Keep an eye on the size of the document so you can consider questions/solutions/issues that you feel you can tailor to that size
- Make sure you do a little reading before you make your pitch so you know you will sound well-informed
- Write out your reactions to things you learn as you do that advanced reading
- Provide your topic as a thirty to sixty second “elevator speech” to show it is developed enough to sustain a longer conversation
- Brainstorm a list of questions you feel you need to answer for various reasons, and choose motivating reasons like “so I can find a job” or “to help me understand the material I need to get into my next class.”
These aren’t foolproof, but chances are if you have been understanding and engaging with the material, you have some questions. Even if you feel like you haven’t been understanding it, you can use your confusion to challenge yourself to learn the material more thoroughly by unboxing and answering your own points of confusion. Sometimes, those can be the most well-informed analyses in the end.