NVWP Summer Institute – Day 2 pt. 2 – Writing Territories as a Prewriting Strategy

Next up is Maggie.

Prewriting Topics Strategy: Writing Territories

Maggie gets us going with a quickwrite.

Q1: How do you brainstorm or come up with topics to write about? Is this different from how you teach your own students about prewriting? How do you get students’ creativity flowing?

I come up with topics to write about by, well, I guess I actually don’t really have a tried and true method. I’ve used Nancy Atwell’s writing territories before. The heart map, the hand map, the lists, etc. The topics I generate rarely end up being the focal point of my writing piece. Instead, the topics act as gateways for finding what tugs at the heart strings, what tugs at the pencil. As a Writing Down the Bones fan, I’m a firm believer in the idea of burning through your first thoughts.

Not my best picture.

Then we share these thoughts. Some say rereading the prompt at least twice. Some of us tell our students to come up with 3-5 ideas and then pick the best one, even though we don’t really do that ourselves. So again we come to the idea that we all have to find our own method for listening to our hearts and our spirits. Some of us start out with mentor texts and combine it with a prompt. So, like, responding to whatever comes to mind when students read and have access to a variety of other mentor texts. I’m reminded of the Buddhist poet Rumi who said, ‘The wound is the place where the light enters you.’ Some use silly prompts, various types of affective images and sounds.

Maggie reminds us of the extreme importance of sharing ourselves with our students. Especially the good stuff. The embarrassing stuff, the blood and guts of the lived experience.

Writing territories are ideas, topics, people, places, and/or memories that are important to you. They are something which you have something to say. What’s important to you? What bugs you? What can’t you live without? Who has shaped your life? What places stick out to you? The key here is the individual ownership of the topics. This can be difficult, to help students to value themselves and their experiences. To show them that what they have to say matters.

Writing Territory Strategies:

  1. Heart Map: A heart shape (doesn’t have to be a heart) where students record what matters to them, why it matters, what’s important to them. Puzzle pieces to fit together
  2. I Wonder: What questions do you have? What do you wonder? Put in a question mark blob if you like.
  3. Things I Dislike / Burn Book: What bothers you? What annoys you to no end? What grosses you out? Can be in a shape of the “no” sign, like in a ‘no smoking’ sign.
  4. Passport: Where have you been? Different towns/cities? Different states? Gramma’s house? Are these places good and/or bad?
  5. Memory Hand: Trace the hand! Write five emotions that come to mind. Label each finger with one emotion. What memories are tied to those emotions? Which people, events, etc. are tied to each emotion? Then, when writing about each of those moments? Link this with showing vs. telling in writing. 

For each territory, Maggie has us do them ourselves, share them with our writing groups, and then share them out with the class. It’s amazing how productive and transformational the simply act of sharing with others can be.

I love these sorts of activities. They help each writer learn how to begin mining themselves for resources, one of the most important skills for any writer.

-Complete writing territories for literary characters
-Writing territories with different “spins,” different tones and moods, for units, etc.
-Shadow heart: the flipside of the heart map with topics that bring fear and trepidation
-Having a public ‘I Wonder’ board for students to continually post, or a padlet
-Talking about Watermelon vs. Seed ideas
-Come back to these continuously throughout the year



  1. Michelle Haseltine

    These are such great ideas to jump start writing! I’ve tried many and some are new to me. And I, too, am a HUGE Writing Down the Bones fan!!! Natalie Goldberg ROCKS!!!! These posts are making me feel like I am there! AWESOME!!!


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