Teachers of various disciplines may find it unpleasurable to read
and comment on student essays because many essays may sound banal
and superficial, lack original and interesting ideas, and/or even
share very similar content especially when students write on the
same topic. In contrast, students may also dislike writing an essay
as they may often find themselves at their wits’ end as to
what to write for their essays.
So what is the problem here? How can students be guided to produce
essays of a more readable nature? The key, I believe, lies in an
effective process of idea generation and information collection
on the part of student writers.
Most students generate ideas by thinking quickly for five to ten
minutes (‘brainstorming’), listing only three or four
ideas (which produces a typical five-paragraph essay) and then immediately
drafting their text. This procedure is of course very much required
for time-constrained writing tasks such as exams. But this lack
of prolonged exploratory writing and information collection in the
strategy of most student writers contributes to the production of
shallow and superficial ideas rather than the creation of new and
Hence, what are some more effective ways of generating ideas?
Writing textbooks would typically list the following: brainstorming,
listing, looping, mind-mapping or clustering, outlining, asking
questions, keeping a journal, visualising your topic and freewriting.
While all these prewriting strategies are useful, I personally would
recommend the following three in combination that are especially
useful in the writing of academically oriented essays.
- Freewriting: Freewriting means literally writing
freely on your topic, noting on paper any ideas you have on the
topic. Do not worry about whether what you write is ‘right’
or not. Do not worry about spelling, grammar, wording, organisation
and sentence structure. Freewriting can take any form: lists,
clustering bubbles or simply scribbling. Freewriting also includes
jotting down immediately on paper any ideas that pop up in your
mind. To do this, having a small notebook or a piece of scrap
paper with you all the time is important.
There are two obvious benefits for freewriting. First, it effectively
overcomes writer’s block. As writing well is not easy and
involves a lot of hard labour, freewriting provides an intermediate
stage for writers to engage in carefree writing before they set
out on the more serious business of writing a decent draft. Second,
freewriting helps disentangle our mind, which is very often inundated
with a messy and chaotic mass of thoughts. By writing ideas down,
we help ease the burden in our mind and are freer to think further
on the topic. In any case, sorting out ideas on paper is always
easier than tidying up ideas in our mind.
- Reading: Topic-related readings (e.g. from
books, research articles, Internet resources) provide a rich source
of information. Reading itself is also excellent in stimulating
our thinking, providing further ideas for our essays. What have
other people written about the topic or related topics? How are
my ideas related to theirs? How is my purpose different from theirs?
How can I incorporate some of their ideas into my essay? With
such questions in mind, reading often stimulates our thoughts
and may contribute useful essay ideas.
- Talking to other people: Being willing and
ready to communicate to others whatever ideas we have on our topic,
what we intend to write and sometimes even our difficulty in getting
ideas for our topic helps bring in fresh new ideas or clarify
some old ones. We do not have to restrict who we want to share
our thoughts with and they can be anybody who is willing to listen
to us, including our peers, our family, our professors and even
we ourselves. As soon as possible after the conversation, engage
in some freewriting again so that ideas that crop up in the discussion
can be noted down.
Practising some exploratory writing to generate ideas for essays
can be a liberating and empowering process for all writers, beginning
or professional. It helps us to discover and write down what is
deep within our mind and to strip off superficiality and hollowness
from our writing. If you practise this exploratory writing process
for all your writing assignments, you may discover that writing
is a challenging, but nonetheless exciting and fulfilling, activity.
Elbow, P. & Belanoff, P. (2000). A Community of Writers:
A Workshop Course in Writing (3rd ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.
Lynn, S. (1997). A Short Guide to Writing. Boston: Allyn
McDonald, S. & Salomone, W. (2000). In Brief: A Handbook
for Writers. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.