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Ideas for In-class Writing – Various Topics or Approaches

Assignment Summary

What I'm offering here are various topics as subjects for student in-class writing (most of which I've tried over the years) that give students a starting point for meaningful expression. It's very important to give students a choice of topic so that their chances of coming up with a meaningful essay will be increased. I never offer less than three and more doesn't hurt. Some of the questions on my list can be used the way they are, some as inspiration for similar approaches tailored by you to current issues or to subjects familiar to the class. Adapt them any way you want and feel free to add to this list.

Here are two versions of the way I introduce my assignment, the first more formal than the second. You may want to combine elements of the two.

(I encourage them to bring a dictionary and their English handbook for use during the class writing.)


You may use pen or pencil. The following are my suggestions for using your time:

1. Choose only one of the topics below. Take your time in choosing, considering how much personal experience or knowledge you have about each subject.

2. Begin with directed freewriting about the subject you chose, exploring the subject without concern about the order of your thoughts or the correctness of your language. Spend at least 20 minutes on this, working freely with your ideas, jotting down notes on all possibilities. Don't be afraid to spin off and follow tangents to see where they lead you.

2. I will tell you when 20 minutes has elapsed so that you can begin to order your material, generally outlining the form of the essay you will write.

3. When 30 minutes has elapsed, you should begin to write your in-class essay on fresh paper, following the guidelines you've planned. If you make errors or change your mind, you may cross out part of your writing and continue. In-class writing should be correct and legible, but it's better to edit on the page and have it look messy than to waste time copying over for neatness.

4. The last ten minutes in class should be spent reading your work back to yourself carefully, proofreading for errors and copyediting for last minute improvements. Again, you may correct what you have written as long as it's legible.

5. Last, give the essay a title, put your name on it, staple this sheet with the pages, and hand it in.

I'm giving you broad concepts today. Choose one and develop a theme using the term as your title. It can be narrative/descriptive writing reflecting personal experience, or conceptual writing developing a theme or argument. You may be serious, clever/playful or impassioned in tone, depending upon your subject, mood and rhetorical strategy.

Leave time to proofread your essay before you hand it in. You may not stay after class to finish. Ideas and quality of expression are more important than neatness, but it must be legible and all errors should be corrected. Crossouts are fine, but don't take the time to recopy your whole essay. You may use a dictionary or English Simplified to help you.

Do not begin by rewriting the question on this sheet. Let your essay inform your reader about the topic. You may give it a title.

10. Instructor's comments: (add your own observations, anecdotes
about how the assignment has worked in the past, anything that
would add to the presentation.)

There are two possible uses for these topics.
Most of us collect a writing sample from our students on the first day in order to get to know our students and to see whether we agree with their placement. I have asked students simply to tell me about themselves, but I find they often respond to that open question very vaguely. It doesn't seem to allow all of them to open up and, in fact, I find the subject inhibits many of them or they don't take it seriously. You may find some of the topics I offer give them something to write about that reveals a lot about them and better points to their ability to organize thought.

Our portfolio has always required the kind of writing that tests the student's ability to write on demand without help from other sources, as college or professional life requires that they do. After teaching them to utilize the various steps in the process of writing thoughtfully – preliminary writing or brainstorming, organization of thought, reading and revision, and copyediting – we can encourage a speeding up of these steps by requiring that a paper be written within a limited time. I use the full class period, whether it be 55 minutes or an hour and 20 minutes, allotting a recommended interval for each of the steps. Some of them naturally will write from the top down, but those who panic or get blocked should benefit from the initial thought-gathering interval.


In life there are leaders and followers. Write about someone you know personally among your peers who is a leader, perhaps someone you grew up with, identifying the qualities and narrating incidents which illustrate the leadership qualities.

Collecting: Many people are collectors. Others think it's a waste of time and money. Whichever way you feel, write about "collecting."

Siblings often grow up side by side in families, yet have very different life experiences. If you have one or more siblings and feel that your lives have differed significantly, write an essay explaining the circumstances and effects of such differences.

One out of every five children in the U.S. lives in poverty, an estimated 12 million children, according to the Children's Defense Fund in the year 2000. Do you feel you grew up in poverty? If so, define what you mean by poverty and describe what it was like, what it meant for you, what it's effect upon you was.
[This topic can be adapted to hardship of a different kind, such as handicap, death of a parent, illness of a sibling, etc.]

Develop an essay about your worst habit, or about something in your life that you would like to change if you could.

What is the hardest thing you ever had to do and how did it change you?

COMPETITION: narrow down this broad topic (sibling, athletic, job, individual, international, other?) and write your essay.

In our society there seems to be a constant disagreement about the point at which a person becomes an adult. Traditionally, age has been the determining factor; however, there are many other factors which could be considered. What are the characteristics and responsibilities you believe demonstrate that an individual has become an adult? You might want to consider in your argument the following aspects of human behavior: the emotional, financial, biological and social. Be sure to develop your reasons in a well-organized essay.

What we eat: it makes a difference.

Write an essay in the form of a letter to your parents explaining why you need more/less independence, or why you are the way you are.

Write a biographical sketch of one of your grandparents.

What is your favorite thing? Write an essay about something you possess that holds great meaning for you. Describe it and explain why it is of value to you.

Write an essay about what you are learning in a different course. Attempt to reconstruct what was said in a lecture or what you read in a text assignment and explain the relevance of this material to the course as a whole and/or your life or career choice.

Money: how important is it?

"Sports is an important part of any educational program for it develops leadership and independent thinking." Explain whether you agree with this statement based upon your own experience.

University life must present you with examples of human behavior which sometimes surprise you – which you admire and applaud, deplore, or simply don't understand. Write an essay in which you compare the ways in which people behave, trying to understand motivations. Where do you fit in?

Write an essay about a place. Don't make it a mystery place for the reader to guess. Describe it, touching upon its physical characteristics, and tell why the place haunts you or beckons you or repels you or is meaningful to you in some way that brings up an emotion in you. Places and people are often bound up together in our minds. You may find in writing about a place that you are simultaneously writing about the people you associate with it or who inhabit it.

Have you recently seen a movie, a play or concert, attended a meeting, or read a book that stimulated some change in the way you think about things? Describe it as a critic, establishing what it was intended to be or do, complimenting what was good, poking fun at what was bad or tasteless or ineffective. Stretch your mind by questioning what you didn't understand.
Describe a former teacher who influenced you and explain the influence.

What was your mother's childhood like? (or substitute father for mother.)

Describe a good friend who you feel is a rather unlikely choice of friend for you, and explain.
Pets: you may do anything you like with this subject.

What, if anything, do you like to spend your money on, and why?
What would be a perfect gift for you, and why?

Define your terms of success for yourself.

Tell a story about an experience in your childhood from which you learned something, explaining what you learned.

Choose behavior, your own or someone else's, which you understand to be foolish and write an essay about it.

Write about an experience that caused you to change your opinion of a person you thought you knew.

Tell about a job you have or once had and describe its value for you.

Discuss one trait that you believe makes men different from women or women different from men.

Write a short story about a character who resembles the person you will be at the age of fifty.

Take the abstract concept, honesty, and write an essay expressing what it means to you. [You can vary this concept] or:
Which one quality or characteristic (honesty, courage, luck, good looks) do you think is most important for leading a successful and happy life? In a well-constructed essay, citing several arguments, explain why you think this quality or characteristic is most important. Your essay should indicate what a successful and happy life is, and you should also discuss why the qualities you do not choose are of less importance.

The great Polish pianist, Paderewski, remarking about his life in music, said: "Before I was a master, I was a slave." Form an essay around the meaning of his words as they apply to you or to life in general.
[Teachers can vary the quote, eg: According to Kahlil Gibran, "Work is love made visible." Explain the meaning of the statement and whether it's true or not."]
"We always move, it seems, through a present we do not care to experience toward some future time and place at which real life will finally begin." (John W. Aldridge, in "Civilization in the United States")

Discuss your attitude toward the present. If you are indifferent to it or disenchanted with it, cite the reasons why and describe the ways in which the expectation of a future shapes your daily experience. If, on the other hand, you are one of those who grab the present with eager hands, reflect on the undesirability of living merely for the future.

"Music is a faithful reflection of the times and people." Use this quotation as a basis for an essay in which you show some of the ways in which the music you like is a "reflection of the times and people," or ways in which the music you like is not.
Karl Wallenda, who fell to his death from a tightrope at the age of 73, said, speaking of his work as a highwire performer some months before he died, "I feel better up there than I do down here. It is my whole life." Give a definition of a job about which you could feel the same way, including details of the duties and environment of the job, the satisfactions to be derived from it, and the promise it would hold for your future.

At one time or another we have all had the disturbing experience of being "a stranger in a strange land." It might have been, for instance, when we stepped on foreign soil, drove into an unfamiliar neighborhood, or entered a new school or college. The experience may have been marked by anxiety, loneliness, suspicion and, in some extreme cases, even by despair. Describe a moment or period in your life when you felt like a "stranger in a strange land." Pay special attention to how the experience affected your dealings with people and your perception of the things around you.

Real generosity is a matter of priorities. When you give away or give up something you don't care about, you're not being generous. Generosity consists of giving up something you value for the sake of another person. Give an example from your life of a generous act, explaining why the act exhibited generosity: how important was the given thing to the giver and to the recipient?

A, B, and C are each 73 years old and healthy. They are alike in all respects except the following: A lives with a young grand-daughter and her husband in their rented apartment. B lives alone in a small apartment and receives weekly visits from relatives. C lives in a rest-home for the elderly and is visited every now and then by relatives. Think about what could be the likely advantages and disadvantages of each situation and then rank the three lives in order of happiness. In an essay, justify your ranking. Your essay should not simply tell three stories but should demonstrate careful reasoning. You may refer to real-life experience to support your view.


1. You are visiting your old high school on College Fair Day when your old principal, Mr. Duseldorf, approaches you. He tells you that the keynote speaker for the day, a former student like yourself, has been delayed at the airport and might not arrive on time. Would you, he wonders, speak to the junior class? Not knowing how to refuse gracefully, you agree. But you have only forty minutes to prepare a talk in which you must impart some piece of wisdom about either preparing for or surviving in college. In the next forty minutes, prepare what you will say.

2. You are the only survivor on a ship which is sinking off the coast of a deserted tropical island in the Pacific. You have time to save only five items from the following list to take with you to the island.
a religious text (Bible, Koran, etc.)
a battery operated radio receiver
two complete changes of clothing
a first aid kit
a rifle and ammunition
a case of bottled water
a 10' by 12' piece of canvas
a box of canned food
a package of your favorite books
writing paper and pens
a knife
a compass
an ax

Decide which five items you would take, and give your reasons for choosing them. Consider all aspects of your life on the island and how different items may interrelate. There are no "right" or "wrong" answers. The effectiveness of your essay will depend in part on how well you support your choices. (Don't be afraid to compare or contrast items chosen with those left behind.)

3. It is the custom to put into cornerstones of newly-constructed buildings objects that will tell people of the future something about life at the time during which the structure was built. Name three (5?) objects that would be most suitable for inclusion in a building completed in (current year) and explain why.

4. You won five million dollars in the lottery. Describe in an essay what you would do with the money and why


Should high school girls compete in contact sports with boys?

What can we as individuals do to conserve energy?

Are schools doing enough to prevent violence among students? What ideas do you have for improving safety in schools?

A right-wing political organization with views that are racist and with principles that encourage the violent defense of those views seeks to run a recruiting advertisement in our college newspaper. More members, the advertisement runs, are needed to save American from the growing power of "so-called U.S. citizens who are not true Americans" (such as blacks, hispanics, Italians, Asians, etc.) One member of the editorial board of the newspaper argues that the advertisement should not be printed; another argues that not to print the advertisement would amount to censorship. Write an essay that supports the position of either one of these members. Be sure to take into account the arguments of the opposition.

Increased life expectancy and a wave of Baby Boomers born after World War II followed by falling birth rates in America indicate that elderly people will make up a larger and larger percentage of the population of the United States in coming years. Write an essay discussing what important effects you believe will be the result for American society.

According to statistics from the Educational Testing Service, SAT test scores of high school seniors have fallen during the past twenty years. High school and college teachers agree that the average academic achievement level among high school seniors and incoming college freshmen seems to be decreasing. What do you believe high schools can do to remedy the problem?


A: "When information is withheld from the public by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of matters that affect them, distrustful of those who govern them, and – eventually – incapable of determining their own destiny."

B: "Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind. Harmful, hurtful, distasteful things may be expressed, coarsening the culture and habituating the public to terrible things."
These two quotations represent conflicting attitudes toward the amount of information which should be made public. In a reasoned essay, support either of these positions or suggest a third, using concrete examples, when you can, to support your position.

II. Parents are responsible for what their children do: yes or no?

You are attending your first class in introductory psychology at SUNY Stony Brook. The class is composed of thirty students. The teacher announces that he is going to conduct an experiment in grading. He will give A's to all the students regardless of what sort of work they do. He is interested in finding out how much the students will learn when they are assured beforehand of receiving an A in the class. Do you think that this way of grading is a good or bad idea? Construct an argument in which you offer solid reasons for your opinion.

John Doe, student, is caught copying an answer from another student's paper during a chemistry exam. His argument to the members of the university disciplinary court, who are firm in their wish to maintain what they call "the standards of the university," is as follows: "It is not fair to single me out for punishment in this case. Everybody cheats at one time in his college career. He may look on a neighbor's paper during an exam, he may copy a friend's English paper, he may lie to a teacher about why he couldn't do his work. It's a common practice. Rather than punish the individual who is caught, the administration ought to be trying to eliminate the problem in general."

If you had the power to make the final decision, which of the following options would you choose?

A: dismiss Doe from the University.
B: give Doe an F for the course.
C: give Doe an F for that particular exam.
D: not punish Doe at all, but give him a lecture on why cheating destroys a university's credibility.
Support your choice in a well-reasoned essay. Include your reasons for not choosing the other three options and take into account the viewpoints of John Doe, other students and the administration.

"The Bet," a famous short story by Chekhov, begins with a discussion of the relative merits of capital punishment and life-imprisonment. One character argues that capital punishment is more "humane" because "execution kills instantly" while "life-imprisonment kills by degrees." A second character disagrees, claiming that both forms of punishment are equally "immoral," yet he goes on to state that if he were offered a choice between the two he would choose life-imprisonment because "it's better to live, even under terrible circumstances, than not to live at all."

Picture yourself in a court, waiting to be sentenced. If the judge were to offer you a choice between these two punishments, which would you choose and why? In a thoughtful reasoned argument, clearly state your position.

Some educators favor putting "gifted" students in special classes because they will learn more if grouped according to high test scores. Others object on the ground that students with lower scores will be deprived of the example and the competition they need and also because it is "undemocratic" to group students according to such scores.

What do you think? Argue for or against putting students with high test scores in their own classes. Develop your reasons clearly and deal with important objections to your position.

Consider the following:

A. "But where would we be without science? It has helped us understand Nature, so that we can look at the world without fear and prejudice. It has, through this understanding, helped us harness Nature's energy so that our industries can make more with less effort. It has given us medicine to combat disease and increase life-expectancy. And it has given us labor-saving devices that leave us all more time for more pleasurable and creative activities."

B. "And it has given us the atomic bomb; and our search for energy has given us hazardous nuclear power. Our industries have polluted the earth with toxic waste. Our ability to save lives has given us an over-populated planet. There is now talk of cloning human beings. We would have been better off if, instead of putting our energy into scientific research, we had devoted our time to improving ourselves."

Compare these two views. Is one position more valid than the other? Explain how you came to your conclusion; be sure to support your argument with specific examples.

"It is unfair that in our society entertainers and professional athletes earn millions of dollars per year, while certain professionals who provide essential services, such as nurses and teachers, make comparatively low salaries."
Do you agree with this statement? State your opinion clearly in a fully developed essay, using examples to support your argument. Be sure to imagine and argue against opposing viewpoints.

Some people put off enjoyment, travel and relaxation for their "old age" or retirement, although many may become seriously ill or even die before they allow themselves these pleasures. Others have fun and "party" from day to day and may wind up with little pleasure, poor health, and no money for the future. Is it better for people to live each day as it comes, plan for the distant future, or practice some other alternative? Give specific examples of how you think people can best satisfy and fulfill their lives and also experience success in their lives.


Instructor's Comments

This is an in-class writing assignment written near the end of the semester is required for the WRT 102 portfolio, but beyond that it can be useful as a diagnostic device early in the semester and anytime as a foil to the longer process of revised writing, providing practice squeezing all the steps down into a brief period of time.
genre in-class essay
course WRT 101 and up
activity type in-class writing assignment
skills essay planning
duration 1 class
dictionary (optional), writing handbook (optional)
handouts: none
contributor: Carolyn McGrath