On Freewriting, Quickwrites, and Writing Prompts: Slice of Life #sol18 23/31

Process Note: I got the idea for this piece from Elsie’s review of The Creativity Project, which included some thought-provoking words about writing prompts. Thanks for the inspiration!

Quickwrites are the heart of every writing class I teach. We typically quickwrite 2-4 times in a class period. Quickwrites are a kind of freewriting, but they’re not freewriting as I originally practiced it as a student or young composition teacher.

As a student, freewriting meant opening my notebook and staring at the blank page with absolutely nothing—nothing—in my brain wanting to be written.

“Just write ‘I don’t know what to write’ over and over again until you think of something,” my writing teacher told us. “Eventually you’ll think of something to write about.”

But I almost never did.

For an entire semester, nearly every freewrite I composed was about how much I hated freewriting.

As a young composition teacher, I was convinced freewriting was something my students had to do. In fact, I believed that freewriting was so essential to good composition teaching practices that I didn’t think I could be a good teacher without it. As I walked to class each day, I’d try to think of a topic. What could I write about? Coffee? Horses? The weather? Maybe what I was reading?

Half the time, I still wrote about how much I hated freewriting. I’m sure my students got tired of listening to me read pieces about how much freewriting sucked and wondered why I kept asking them to freewrite when I clearly struggled with it. Some of them did take to freewriting, and we all looked forward to hearing their pieces written on the fly each week.

I believed that good writing teachers were also writers, so I dutifully carried my notebook to the coffee shop on the weekend and cracked it open to do some more freewriting.

Maybe if I just kept doing it, it would somehow click?

I filled my notebooks with short pieces of writing about how much I hated freewriting. There were a few lines of “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write” on every page.

These weren’t notebooks I ever returned to. There was nothing to mine for future pieces of writing. Nothing with much energy. Nothing I was much interested in.

It wasn’t until I attended a UNH Literacy Institute course taught by Louise Wrobleski that I discovered how I truly work as a writer.

I need a trigger. I need a door that I can open and walk through.

Wrobleski started class every day with a short poem, which she printed and distributed to the class. I’d read plenty of poetry before but never written from it, yet every poem she shared had a line, a phrase, an image that made me itch to write.

We wrote frequently from different prompts, questions, images, poems, passages from literature. We sketched. I filled pages over the first week of that course and never once wrote about how much I hate freewriting or needed a few lines of “I don’t know what to write” to warm up. I wrote as fast as my hands could move, in a white heat of inspiration, to prompt after prompt. When she called time, I still had more to write.

It seemed like magic, but it was only quickwrites.

For some writers, freewriting fulfills its promise: it frees writing. But as Penny Kittle says, for most of us, unlimited choice is no choice at all.

The things we need to write about are usually not sitting there on the surface of our brains, just waiting to burst out onto the blank page if only someone would set a timer and ask us to open our notebooks. For most of us, the things worth writing are buried a little deeper. They need some digging to get to. They need an invitation.

Quickwrites are that invitation. They give writers a line to follow into a piece. They give us a way in.

Quickwrites are not writing prompts. If you do a search for writing prompts, you might find stuff like “If you were a sprinkle, what kind of dessert would you go on?” or “Would you rather have three arms or three legs?” (Two prompts I found this morning on a list of suggested prompts for elementary teachers.) I am sure it’s tempting to assign such questions as journal writing for students because they seem fun, playful, creative. But how many of us want to write about what kind of dessert we would go in if we were a sprinkle? How many of us really care to spin out the possibilities of three arms vs three legs? It might intrigue one or two students in a classroom, but everyone else will write a few dutiful sentences and then shut their notebooks, glad to be done.

Writing prompts shut doors, limit choice, close minds, prevent surprise.

A good quickwrite provides multiple doors in—but also multiple doors out. Even if we all start with the same two words (Natalie Goldberg’s “I remember,” for instance), no two of us will remember the same things or write similar pieces. We will end up in very different places.

A good quickwrite invites play and surprise. It reveals something you didn’t know you knew before you started writing.

A good quickwrite is a trigger, a spark.

My students and I write most often off of other texts these days. Anything short is a possibility: picture books, poems, spoken word, infographics, flash nonfiction, photographs. We like Natalie Goldberg’s list of writing ideas from Writing Down the Bones. We can’t get enough of Georgia Heard’s quickwrites (which often turn into longwrites) in Writing Toward Home.

What are some of your favorite quickwrites?







29 responses to “On Freewriting, Quickwrites, and Writing Prompts: Slice of Life #sol18 23/31”

  1. elsie Avatar

    Your experience with free writing is painfully familiar. I think I want to change the language of quick write prompt. Let’s banish prompt and use trigger or invitation. Katherine Sokolowski (on Read, Write, Reflect) wrote about quick writes today too. I couldn’t agree more with how writing prompts shut the door to one’s mind, but a quick write invitation opens the mind. Thanks for clarifying!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I like this idea of changing the language of the quickwrite prompt. The “prompt” part makes many of us want to avoid it! I just read Katherine’s post and loved everything she said, of course.

  2. livinglife816287820 Avatar

    Thank you so much for this post, so many suggestions and great ideas. I think I have been trying to get my students to imagine themselves as a sunflower who doesn’t like the sun for far too long! Using quickwrites has just unlocked a whole new realm of possibilities for me.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      Probably my favorite way to use a quickwrite is to share a poem and ask students to write from it–borrow a word or line or idea and go. Sentence stems work really well for my students too. I remember, I don’t remember, I wonder, I saw, I see, etc. Your sunflower who doesn’t like the sun made me laugh out loud!!

  3. Raivenne Avatar

    Yes! Prompts have sparked so much more creativity in my writing than staring at a blank page conjuring words on my own. I too had books filled with pages of I don’t know what to write. Now I adore quick writes. I am beguiled by how one word, or one line can suddenly have my muse take flight to points where even I have am surprised by what falls out of my pen.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      And so often that’s all it takes: one word that sparks something. It’s very open-ended. One reason why I love the March slice challenge so much is that there are so many pieces of writing I can write alongside and from as mentor texts and prompts!

  4. Kristen J Caprarola Avatar

    I love quick writes too, they are super versatile and can be used at any point in ELA classes or units. At the beginning of the year we use them as more of a bellringer and transition into class. As the school year progresses they become inspiration for our blog posts, notes that lead us to our research and just creative writing stories. We do them both as individual students and also as dialogue journals so students can share conversations or stories together. There are so many possibilities!! Great post:)

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I use them in many ways in my classes too. It’s amazing to me what rich and unexpected writing they often inspire.

  5. Trina Haase Avatar
    Trina Haase

    I love this line: “I need a trigger. I need a door that I can open and walk through.”

    I have found that giving students a choice of some sort of a prompt or emulating a text is the most effective. This is what we did in Writing Project as well.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      We usually write from other texts in my classes. I like how sharing the mentor text for writing also enriches our reading lives.

      1. Trina Haase Avatar
        Trina Haase

        I have also found using a document camera (with me writing with my students) is helpful too

  6. margaretsmn Avatar

    You just mentioned two of my favorite books on writing. Thanks for clearing up the quick writes/prompt question. Most often I fall in the quick write category. I present a poem, picture book, or photograph and we just write. Wonderful magic happens.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      Yes! Wonderful magic indeed! I have a very tiny writing class this semester, but they have been doing some amazing writing from different quickwrites, and I think they have all discovered big topics for big pieces of writing from this playful writing we do to start class. I’m still thinking about the distinction between prompts and quickwrites. It’s sometimes a subtle difference, I think, but it’s there.

  7. Tamara Jaimes Avatar
    Tamara Jaimes

    I appreciated reading your post; there is so much that challenges my thinking and gives me insight into other writers. I have one writer in particular in mind who started the year asking for prompts, his mother told me he needs prompts, but I hoped he would grow more independent this year. (My definition of independent: being able to generate his own writing topics.) He is still struggling and I feel bad about that, but I am unwilling to provide prompts for all of the reasons you cite. I’m wondering now if maybe what he needs is “a trigger,” “an invitation,” “a spark,” a door that he can open and walk through? I like and am going to use Elsie’s suggestion of a quick write “jolt.”

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I used to feel the same way, Tamara, like I was doing my students a disservice and providing them with a crutch they didn’t or shouldn’t need. But the more I’ve learned about how writers work and the more I write myself, I understand writing as a way to join a conversation, to riff off of another’s thoughts or words, to seek and find inspiration. I think when we know who we are as writers and know how we work, we can ignite our own process, but I think that takes experience and observation and practice.

  8. Juliana Ellington Avatar

    I really enjoyed this post and learned something important, too. I am of the arrogant journal writing group (I HOPE there is a group, lol) who scorns any kind of prompt in my journal. Suddenly, I’m seeing a difference between my rebelling against someone telling me what I have to write about and my shutting my eyes to what could be an invitation and/or a trigger to move me deeper than the day’s weather and whether or not I finished the items on my to-do list. I think I gave you all my writing books because I could not see that they could possibly pertain to me and my journal. Now, however, I’m going to try some of your ideas! Also, how interesting to discover that all those years of free-write time for my students did not work well, not because they were dis-inclined to write, but because the blank page and the offer of infinite possibilities were not helpful.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I should loan some of your writing books back to you, because I only use a few consistently and I do have many more that have quite good writing sparks in them. I also always thought my high schoolers were disinclined to write, but it turns out they were simply stymied by the blank page and overwhelmed by too much choice. Unlimited choice really can be debilitating for readers and writers. I always found the same thing with reading: turning a dormant reader loose in the classroom library with a cheerful “Find a book that looks good to you! Any book!” was also a recipe for disinclination to read.

  9. persistenceandpedagogy Avatar

    One of the most amazing things about this month (or 23 days, so far) is how much I am learning. Thank you for sharing this. I am so new to, well, everything (even though I’ve been teaching forever). I can’t quite believe that you just casually talk about how much you hate freewrites because… ME TOO – and I’ve never told anyone. I figured I just wasn’t a very good writer… I love this line, “for most of us, unlimited choice is no choice at all.” Exactly. I have these 10th graders this semester… they are, um, not engaged with school for the most part. Already things are changing in our classroom – wait until they discover quickwrites (which they will moan about and tell me they hate… but I can imagine the alchemy that is just around the corner – just there – I can almost touch it… I’ll get back to you in a few weeks…)

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I’m so glad you connected to that part of the post and it named something you felt–though I’m sorry that freewriting didn’t work for you either. I thought there was something somehow wrong with me as a writer for a long time because the invitation to total choice shut me down. I am always amazed by the students who just soar when turned loose with the blank page and a “write what’s on your mind” invitation–and some always do. Have you tried spoken word poetry with your 10th graders? I thought I had a blog post about using spoken word in the classroom, but maybe I just imagined writing one because I sure can’t find it. Amy Rasmussen has a good one, though, with some nice recommendations of videos to share: https://threeteacherstalk.com/2016/04/01/poetic-rhetoric-spoken-word-poems-in-ap-lang/ I can’t wait to hear about how your students do. Mine really do love to write from poems, lifting a line, writing alongside. Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, Marge Piercy, Gary Soto are favorites. They also love writing from certain picture books. Patricia McLachlan’s What You Know First and Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains inspire probably the best writing of the year every single year for my students.

  10. terierrol Avatar

    I love the idea of doing quick writes with a little inspiration. Can’t wait to try this with the class.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I can’t imagine teaching or writing without them! I love that little spark and the surprise of a piece that comes out that you weren’t even imagining you would write. My students and I talk about this all the time: “Were you thinking about that when you sat down to write? Did you know you were going to write about that today?” “No way!”

  11. Leigh Anne Eck Avatar
    Leigh Anne Eck

    My students come from writing prompts and free choice for them is scary. I quickly found they needed a door too. I have been having a conversation about this same topic with some virtual colleagues. I think I need to print this one off for further thinking. Oh and I think you are the second or third person who has mentioned both of those books this month. I have got to check them out!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I think free choice often isn’t as freeing as we imagine it is. It’s only freeing when you already have the tools, strategies, and practices at your fingertips, and so many of our students don’t. I know I was so mystified when I built a wonderful classroom library, turned my students loose, and then very few of them became readers. But just providing the choice to read whatever they wanted wasn’t enough to help them know what kind of readers they were. I think it’s similar with writing. I’d start with the Georgia Heard book–but beware, you will want to sit down and write from it!! Make sure you’ve got your notebook and some time!

  12. arjeha Avatar

    I have seen some prompts that make me scratch my head and wonder who ever came up with that. They don’t spark creativity or the urge to write. A picture, a poem, a few thought provoking words can open the gates to meaningful writing. “A good quickwrite is a trigger, a spark.” Some of us just need that spark.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I always wonder if teachers are sitting down and writing to those prompts themselves. I’m guessing not. I know that I sure wouldn’t get very far with some of the prompts I’ve seen on the boards in classrooms!

  13. Glenda M. Funk Avatar

    Wonderful distinction between quick writes and writing prompts: “Writing prompts shut doors, limit choice, close minds, prevent surprise.” I’ve long struggled w/ assigning and writing the random journal topic each day (I don’t assign these) and have never been able to sustain these for any length of time. It’s so much better to have a starting point grounded in something. I think one way the daily writing took a wrong turn is w/ the popularity of “bell ringers” in the 1990s.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I bet you’re right with your connection with bellringers. Good thinking! A lot of canned and cutesy stuff gets foisted on kids in the name of bellringers. I’m still thinking through some of the distinctions between prompts and quickwrites here. It’s a much more interesting topic than I realized when I started writing this piece!

  14. Akilah Avatar

    Quick writes are a baller idea. I like this more than prompts. I would hesitate calling them “triggers,” though since that means something very specific in the mental health community and may have a negative response if students hear a prompt called that.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      That’s a very good point!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: