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We can choose from several methods when we want to generate ideas for a writing project. We can call these methods brainstorming techniques or invention techniques. They all have a few common rules:
- Write down everything that occurs to you; don’t eliminate anything until you are done brainstorming.
- Don’t bother with editing at this stage.
- Work as quickly as you can.
Brainstorm list: Simply make a list of all the ideas related to your topic. Do not censor your ideas; write everything down, knowing you can cross some off later. As you brainstorm, try not to focus your writing radar too narrowly, on a single aspect of your topic or a single question. The broader you cast your brainstorming net, the better because a large list of possibilities will give you a wealth of choices when time comes to compose your first draft.
What I know/don’t know lists: If you know that your topic will require research, you can make two lists. The first will be a list of what you already know about your topic; the second will be a list of what you don’t know and will have to research. For example, you might label one list "10 things I know to be true about…" and another "10 things I wonder about..."
A mind map or cluster is a method of brainstorming that allows you to draw connections between ideas.
- To make a cluster, start with a big concept related to your assignment prompt. Write this in the center of a page or screen and circle it.
- Think of ideas that connect to the big concept or branch out of it. Write these around the big concept and draw connecting lines to the big concept.
- As you think of ideas that relate to any of the others, create more connections by writing those ideas around the one idea that connects them and draw connecting lines.
Notice that you can use color, larger type, etc., to create organization and emphasis.
Freewriting is an exercise in which you write freely (jot, list, write paragraphs, write question, take off on tangents: whatever “free” means to you) about a topic for a set amount of time (usually three to five minutes or until you run out of ideas or energy).
Try to write without checking, censoring, or editing yourself in any way. Don't put your pen or pencil down, or stop typing on the computer, no matter what. Let your mind go, go with the flow, and don’t worry about the end product. Don’t even worry about finishing your sentences or separating your paragraphs. You are not writing a draft of your paper. Instead, you are producing raw material. Later on, you just might find a gem of an idea in that raw material which you can develop into a complete draft.
- Write as much as you can, as quickly as you can.
- Don’t edit or cross anything out. (Note: if you must edit as you go, just write the correction and keep moving along. Don’t go for the perfect word, just get the idea on the page.)
- Keep your pen, pencil, or fingers on the keyboard moving.
- You don’t need to stay on topic or write in any order. Feel free to follow tangents.
- If you get stuck, write a repeating phrase until your brain gets tired and gives you something else to write. (For example, "I really hate having to do this, why isn’t it lunch-time already, please let me think of something, please let me think of something.")
- Choose a prompt, an idea or question that gets you started. An example of a writing prompt might be “What do I already know about this topic?” Or “What is the first idea I have about my topic?” If you started with a list or an outline, you can freewrite about each item.
Looping is a technique built on freewriting. It can help you move within a topic to get all related ideas into writing.
- To begin, start with a freewrite on a topic. Set a timer and write for 5-15 minutes (whatever you think will be enough time to get going but not so much that you will want to stop).
- When the time period ends, take a short break. Read over what you’ve written and circle anything that needs to be fleshed out or that branches into new ideas. Select one of these for your next loop.
- Freewrite again for the same time period, using the idea you selected from the first freewrite.
- Repeat as long as you see an interesting idea that could be expanded.
For more on using a timer and breaks to get going on tasks you tend to procrastinate on, you may want to read about the Pomodoro Technique.
To stimulate ideas, you can ask questions that help you generate content. Use some of the examples below or come up with your own.
Problem/Solution: What is the problem that your writing is trying to solve? Who or what is part of the problem? What solutions can you think of? How would each solution be accomplished?
Cause/Effect: What is the reason behind your topic? Why is it an issue? Conversely, what is the effect of your topic? Who will be affected by it?
The set of 5 journalist’s questions, sometimes called the five W’s, can help us generate basic information about a topic. Here are the questions:
- Who: Who is involved? Who is affected?
- What: What is happening? What will happen? What should happen?
- Where: Where is it happening?
- When: When is it happening?
- Why/how: Why is this happening? How is it happening?
Some of us feel more comfortable expressing ourselves in conversation than on the page. We can generate ideas by speaking aloud as well; this may stimulate our brain in a different way. All of the above strategies can be adapted for speaking rather than typing or writing. These spoken brainstorms can be social or solitary. Here are a few approaches:
Conversations with peer or tutors
A conversation with a live person can help us come up with ideas that might not have occurred to us if we weren't energized by the other person and imagining what might interest them. It can work well to follow up more solitary kinds of brainstorming with a peer or group time to share what we came up with. Writing tutors are usually trained to question, encourage and draw out ideas.
Talking to ourselves
If we can let go of feeling foolish, a private conversation with ourselves can be a great way to get past writer's block and tap into new energy. We could start a monologue with our questions and doubts. For example, "Hmm, well, I'm somewhat interested in electric cars, but I know so many people are doing that topic. What would my angle be? The battery problems in these cars are severe, so I don't want to endorse them, but I don't want to give up on them either..."
Most word processing programs now, including Google Docs, include voice typing features that allow us to speak and see the words transcribed on the page. We might have to edit the transcription later, of course, but if we can bring ourselves to talk but we can't bring ourselves to write, this is a great way to get something down.
We can use our phones to record voice memos of ideas at any time. If your voicemail transcribes your message automatically, you can leave yourself voice messages and glance at what you've said later for reference.
- Adapted by Anna Mills from The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear of Clackamas Community College and Portland State University, published by OpenOregon under a CC BY-NC license.
- Select sentences and paragraphs added from Methods of Discovery by Pavel Zemliansky, licensed CC BY NC-SA 3.0.
- The section on "Talking" is original content by Anna Mills, licensed CC BY-NC 4.0.