Teachers often tell us that one great pain they wish to change is how little their students have to say. Students’ writing, they tell us, is often curtailed by limited experience and a lack of observation, or by unformed opinions.

We understand why teachers say this, but we don’t think it’s the whole story.

Every writer today is awash in an ocean of information. Pictures, memes, videos, GIFs, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Vimeo, Facebook, advertising, movie trailers and dozens of other attractive options for consuming – rather than creating – ideas.

It’s no wonder students are overwhelmed or unsure how to begin.

Photo of man leaping

Kids might need to be taught that their ideas matter, even if those ideas are unformed at first (in contrast to that flood of highly developed ‘stuff’ coming in).

We can tell them that weak ideas are absolutely okay. Why? Because a weak idea nearly always leads to better ideas if you keep going.

We need to help students to keep pushing through to the ‘Alpha’ brain state in which the brain spins freely, and open association means ideas can be formed from seemingly unconnected things.

One step towards creativity

Step 1: Plan for Success is a powerful step. It includes the whole business of making, finding, collaborating and assembling ideas. Mastering Step 1 has a huge impact on student writing.

You could say Step 1 is ALL about ideas because a plan is only possible when you have something to say. First get ideas, then sort ideas, and finally, plan a structure using your ideas.

Let’s teach students how to spot an idea even when it’s just a glimmer, coax it out gently (ideas have a habit of hiding), and use it to generate more.

Here are two ways to do this to show students how to create ideas – and show them that their ideas are worth building upon

Two great ways to hunt for ideas – and a bonus tip

1. Word association

Part of the secret behind the Seven Steps is that students ‘talk to write’, and we practise, practise, practise. This one’s not new, but there are lots of ways to play it:

  • Provide each person with one word, such as:
    • chicken, basketball, orange, blue, elephant, sunset, run, fly, ball, dog, sport, play, sandwich, grow, beard, guitar, make, spy, hat, jump, magic, racehorse, cloud, star, speedboat, explode.
  • Pair students up: together they make a sentence using both words. They write it down (e.g. The chicken played guitar.) Go quickly, no pressure.
  • Ask pairs to look at their sentence and think of one word per person that the sentence makes them think of (e.g. Gee that would be noisy. Wouldn’t a chicken need fingers to play guitar?)
  • Each pair should now have four words (e.g. chicken, guitar, noisy, fingers).
  • Have pairs get together with another pair and share all eight words (e.g. orange, ball, secret, hot – PLUS – chicken, guitar, noisy, fingers).
  • They use any two of their words plus anything else to make a story topic or scenario (e.g. Chicken has secret life.) Note that these are not titles, they’re scenarios.
  • Tell groups they can add starters such as ‘The day when…’ ‘What if…’ and ‘In a land where…’ (e.g. ‘The day when my guitar revealed my secret’).
  • If any groups get stuck, let the whole class work together until you have loads of topics.

This activity gets easier with practice – which is the point! Try it several times to see if idea generation becomes less daunting.

Remember, students are just generating topics (ideas), not writing full texts using the words. Loosen the rules as they get better at it – allow them to bring in more new words of their own at any point.

To vary it, try adding a word pulled randomly from a hat, trading word cards between pairs, rolling dice, or using the Chatterbox Template below. Students can ‘phone a friend’ (get their word to combine with theirs), or ask the class to call out an adjective and add it to the sentence.

Have a few books available and get students to open the book at random and add the 12th or 22nd or 31st word to their set.

Generate lots of topics, post them around the classroom and after this activity is familiar, let students choose one to write about.


STEP Step 1: Plan for Success

  • A random ideas generator that can create over 500 unique story ideas!
  • Collaborative story planning game that students love.

2. Picture prompts

Many writing prompts (including ours) provide an image and ask students to write or brainstorm something based on the image.

The trouble with images is that they can drive students down very specific paths (Student: ‘But the character is the guy I see in this photo, so I don’t have to describe him…’) Use picture prompts judiciously.

Try pairing students – provide a picture to one student who does not let the other see it. The first student describes what they see and the other student writes what that inspires them about character, setting, plot.

Use our Writing Prompts to practise brainstorming. We’ve started a set of narrative, persuasive and informative writing prompts that focus only on one Step at a time.

The reason for this is another secret to the success of the Seven Steps approach: chunk large tasks, break down skills and practice until they become easier.

Bonus secret to success:

Brainstorm in groups! Provide a prompt or game, get students in groups and let them get started. Give them a short time frame (1-2 minutes), then have them move, mix up the groups, and go to another prompt.

Keep mixing, keep moving (the blood keeps flowing), play music – let students be noisy.

Ideas might be shy beasts, but they can’t resist the fun of a game.


Try generating word associations with the Chatterbox (with FUN writing prompts!).

A simple tech tool for more word association fun: WordStorm, the brainstorming tool (needs Flash).

Blog posts: Top three brainstorming tips and Creativity in the classroom.