Natural language generation (NLG) is a process within artificial intelligence where computer systems produce human-comprehensible language texts from information. English as a foreign language (EFL) students’ use of NLG tools might facilitate their idea generation, which is fundamental to creative writing. However, little is known about how EFL students interact with NLG tools to generate ideas. This study explores strategies adopted by EFL students when searching for ideas using NLG tools, evaluating ideas generated by NLG tools and selecting NLG tools for idea generation. Four Hong Kong secondary school students attended workshops where they learned to write stories comprising their own words and words generated by NLG tools. After the workshops, they answered questions to reflect on their writing experience with NLG tools. In a thematic analysis of the written reflections, we found students may have existing ideas when searching for ideas and evaluating ideas with NLG tools. Students showed some aversion to ideas generated by NLG tools and selected NLG tools that generated a greater quantity of ideas. The findings inform our understanding of EFL students’ concerns when using NLG tools for idea generation and can inform educators’ instruction to implement NLG tools for classroom creative writing. Copyright © 2023 The Author(s).