Can’t think of nothin’

By Lucy Oliver, Research Fellow, University of Exeter

Students often say the hardest part of writing is getting started. As one girl (in year 9) put it to me recently: ‘When you don’t know what you want to say is when you have a problem – on a bad day I’ll just sit there for ages, a blank-out kind of, and I know that the time’s running out and I can’t think a thing and I’m like Aargh!’ Like stage fright, being stuck for words can be terrifying when the spotlight is on you to produce. For students, the problem is frequently compounded by their perception that ‘a good day’ depends on forces outside their control: with luck or ‘inspiration’, that elusive idea will somehow pop into their head and they’re off: ‘For me it would be luck and what I can think of on the day. If I can get that first sentence, the rest just comes and I’m alright’.

How do we as writers tackle the problem of having to conjure up something from nothing? When authors are asked where they get their ideas from, they describe a range of strategies for collecting or generating material, strategies which ensure they have something, anything, to work on rather than waiting for luck to strike: ‘as a writer, you have to write whether you’ve got ideas or not, whether or not you’re feeling inspired…you can’t say “I’m going to my room to be lucky for two hours” ’ (Philip Pullman). Professional writers stress that ideas come from anywhere and everywhere if you look – from focused research and reading on the one hand to random observations on the other. The smallest, most mundane detail can sometimes provide the seed of an idea for writing: a scrap of conversation overheard, a phrase spotted in a newspaper, an image or object, comment or question – all prompts and possibilities to play around with, develop and transform in the process of getting ready for writing.

We tend to lump together these initial exploratory activities under the term ‘prewriting’, a catch-all for everything a writer does before embarking on a first draft and much wider in scope than the ‘planning’ or ‘outlining’ commonly recommended in textbooks. The teacher-writer Donald Murray has much to say about this phase. He detailed at length the mulling and doodling, jotting and reformulating that characterised his own prewriting process. He also suggested that writers spend far more time (70-85%) on prewriting activities than on the writing itself, sometimes over months or years. School writing of course demands a different pace. Even so, as Murray argued, student writers need ‘the experience of rehearsing what they will write in their minds, on the paper and with collaborators’ before committing to scrutiny and the cold eye of assessment. They too need the space to think and talk, try out and try again, without the fear of failure.


Prewriting is an under-researched aspect of teaching and learning and its potential impact on children’s writing is of particular interest to all of us involved in the TaW project.  Over the next few weeks we will be talking to students about their perceptions of writing process and observing how teachers and writers collaborate to help them build ideas for narrative writing. Project teachers are currently trying out prewriting activities they encountered during the Arvon residential, as well as the many they already deploy to provide ‘ways in’ to writing for their students – freewriting, brainstorming, mind-mapping, story-boarding, note-taking, co-writing, drawing, talking and rehearsing aloud. I for one am very much looking forward to finding out more about the kinds of activities that young writers think enable them to generate not just something to say but something they want to say.

Lucy Oliver
Research Fellow
University of Exeter


One thought on “Can’t think of nothin’”

  1. I once accepted a challenge from my class (2nd years in a Writing for Young People module at Bath Spa Uni) that I could think of ten good story ideas from the time I left the M4 to the time I entered Bath. I used song lyrics, things I saw along the way, memories that popped up in my head, the chocolate bar I was eating, a news story that came on the radio, etc. One of those ten stories became my novel Wipe Out, which won a BAFTA for the screen adaptation! I now actually teach those techniques…often using Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ because it’s a song that leaves off just when it gets interesting…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *