Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The "Do NOT Do This!" List for Writing Ideas

A few months ago I came across this image on Pinterest, and I completely misinterpreted its purpose:
Photo by Marshall Astor via

It's actually a nice little article to teachers about feeling okay with not saying "yes" to every request. You can click on the image above if you'd rather read that.

But that's not what I thought the post was about. Looking at the image, I thought for sure the author had come up with a new "idea list" for students to generate, to use as a resource in their writing. I almost didn't click on it because I was so confident I'd figured it all out just from the image. 

And then I clicked on it, and found out I was wrong.

Oh well. It was a nice little article.

But I still liked my wrong idea.
So let's go with it.

The thinking behind my idea of the "Do NOT Do This!" list comes from my belief that one of the most integral qualities of a strong writer is the guts to be bold... to take a risk, take a stand, take a different path, carve a new path... to look at the act of writing as an ongoing experiment. Writers surely fail more often this way. But writers surely learn more this way. And here and there... a gem surfaces.

If you're like me, in the first few weeks of school, you help students set up different lists to brainstorm writing ideas, to load up a collection for when one is needed during the year. You've got the "I'm an expert at..." list, the "My hobbies" list, the "Happy memories" list, and of course the "Sad memories" list.

But the "Do NOT Do This!" list takes some guts. It produces writing a bit more... dangerous, more edgy. It flips some of the more common idea-generating-lists on their heads and gets students thinking differently.

The first column of the "Do NOT Do This!" list is for ideas inspired by personal experience. Students list things that you should NOT do. Tell students to think about bad decisions, injuries, close calls, accidents, betrayals, mistakes, unintentional consequences, and regrets. The innate tension within these experiences makes for a strong story.

Let me give you some examples of entries on my list:
  • Do NOT throw Frisbees while cars are passing. 
  • Do NOT eat a pickle before swimming.
  • Do NOT come to a snake fight with only one golf club.
  • Do NOT jump off a swing backwards.
  • Do NOT let your puppy sleep with your favorite sweatshirt.
  • Do NOT put an entire pouch of Big League Chew gum in your mouth.
  • Do NOT tell an animal control officer that "you ain't scared" to wrestle a 3-foot alligator.
  • Do NOT poke the hairball buried in your garden too harshly.
  • Do NOT make a deal with Luke Doxhall. Ever.
Did your eyes widen at reading any of those ideas? Don't you want to know the story behind some of them? And would you believe that every one of them has a real, true experience behind them? Believe it.

The second column of the "Do NOT Do This!" list is for ideas purely from the imagination. These ideas tend to get a little wild, or silly, or even (gasp!) violent. 

Here are a few examples of the more fantastical side of the list:
  • Do NOT leave a snack for the monster under your bed.
  • Do NOT knock on the door of the haunted house.
  • Do NOT let your little brother sneak onto your rocket ship.
  • Do NOT play with a fire-breathing dragon. 
  • Do NOT push the glowing purple button. Ever.
Admittedly, when I look at this column of a student's list, I often want to roll my eyes or sneer in disgust. But WAIT! Remember, this is brainstorming... bold brainstorming. Not every idea will be a hit. (I mean, do you really want to know what happened to the pickle?) But as students get more and more comfortable with what makes a story strong, one with conflict and emotions, they'll be better able to weed out, refine, and adapt their ideas.

Find more ideas for developing bold writers and deep readers at my blog, The Thinker Builder.
Pickles not included.


  1. What an awesome idea for brainstorming! I will definitely be using this in the future. Thanks for the great post :)

  2. I absolutely love this list idea! Thank you!!

  3. What a great way to get students writing in a different direction. I think we always need to push past the usual hooks that inspire students to write and your Do Not Do This list is an amazing way to do that. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Kids will have fun with this one!

  5. Kids will have fun with this one!