One of the biggest challenges in working as a tutor is when a student comes into the tutoring session with absolutely nothing – no ideas, outlines, or writing of any sort. In this blogpost, I will share some helpful strategies in getting the brainstorming process started, and in doing so identifying a topic that could be of interest to a student. Of course, this can also be applied to your own writing and writing processes, and doesn’t necessarily have to happen in a tutoring session.
Oftentimes in a situation where the student does not know where to being their writing process, a freewriting session can be the most lucrative. During this time, it is important that the student knows this phase of the writing process is very low stakes – this will help them from stressing out even more over the anxiety they may be facing about starting their paper.
The following strategies come from Lakeside High School in Seattle, WA, and were given to me as a freewrite exercise for help with college application essays:
Strategy #1: This strategy is most helpful in coming up with a paper topic or idea.
1) Pick a passage, page, paragraph, quote, or question that stood out to you, that you found interesting or compelling. Then write on this for 20 minutes.
2) Now pick something that you said in this freewrite that was the best (what’s the most insightful thing I came up with?), and write for another 20 minutes on this new topic, turning it into a topic or assertion.
3) Once the main topic has been identified, the student can now return to the text and find other passages that support or further this central claim. If the student has trouble with this, it could be helpful to repeat steps 1 and 2 with the new passage.
Strategy #2: This strategy can be used once a specific topic has been chosen and the student is now working on their body paragraphs. However, if all else fails the student could start with this and see if s/he could extract any meaningful ideas or concepts from the specific passage in question (similar to the first strategy).
1) Write down 10 observations about a passage (bullet points or otherwise) and then form an insight with these observations. This could be useful as a topic sentence, but probably not as a thesis.
*While these two strategies are obviously aimed at helping a tutee who is writing an Encounters paper or other text-based paper, they can be adapted to just about any sort of paper by replacing the text with a specific topic. For example, if the essay is about Crime in Society, you could have the student think about a specific aspect of crime that they find most interesting and reflect on that, then go back and identify the most fruitful thing that they came up with during their freewrite. Furthermore, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the most fruitful or insightful thing in the freewrite – an idea or concept they would like to explore further could work just as well.