Friday, January 29, 2021

Nonfiction Writing Tips: The Idea Incubator

As you read the mentor essays in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing, it will become clear that professional nonfiction authors choose topics that resonate deeply with them, often for reasons only they can understand. The ideas may trace back to childhood curiosity, a deeply held belief, or even a missed opportunity.

Even though students may not have enough life experience to fully understand their unique passions and perspectives the same way adult writers do, they can still learn strategies for choosing topics that are related to their personal interests and ideas that matter to them.

A great way to get started is with an Idea Incubator—a bulleted list of potential topics on the last page of their writer’s notebook. Every time a student has an idea or question about something they see, read, or experience, they can add it to their Idea Incubator list. They can also include cool facts they come across.

When it’s time to start a nonfiction writing project, students can use their Idea Incubator list as a starting point. If students are choosing their own topic, they may be able to pull an idea directly from their list.

But even if you assign a topic that aligns with your content area curriculum, a list of facts, ideas, and questions is still a valuable tool. Working alone or with a partner, students can search for a common thread among the items on their list and brainstorm ways to apply that to the whole-class topic you’ve assigned. I’ll share more ideas about how students can make this sort of  “umbrella” topic their own next week.


  1. Like Sue Havenrich, I, too, love the idea incubator.
    I have learned that I need to keep a running tab of ideas.