Whether you are assigned a particular topic or are allowed to choose your own topic within certain guidelines, the next step is to explore the ideas that you might write about in more detail. This process is called “brainstorming,” though some instructors and textbooks might refer to similar techniques as “invention” or “pre-writing.” Regardless of what it’s called, the goal is the same: to lay the foundation for focusing in on a particular topic and the working thesis of a research-writing project.
I recommend you keep three general concepts in mind when trying any approach to brainstorming with your writing:
- Not all of these approaches to brainstorming will work equally well for everyone or work equally well for all topics. Your results will vary and that’s okay. If one of these techniques doesn’t work for you, try another and see how that goes.
- When trying any of these techniques, you can’t censor yourself. Allow yourself the freedom to brainstorm about some things that you think are bad or even silly ideas. Getting out the “bad” or “silly” ideas has a way of allowing the good ideas to come through. Besides, you might be surprised about how some topics that initially seem bad or silly turn out to actually be good with a little brainstorming.
- Even if you know what topic you want to write about, brainstorm. Even if you know you want to write about a particular topic, you should try to consider some other topics in brainstorming because you never know what other things you could have written about if you don’t consider the possibilities. Besides, you still should do some brainstorming to shape your idea into a topic and then focus it into a working thesis.
One of the most common and effective brainstorming techniques for writing classes, freewriting, is also easy to master. All you do is write about anything that comes into your head without stopping for a short time—five minutes or so. The key part of this activity though is you cannot stop for any reason! Even if you don’t know what to write about, write “I don’t know what to write about” until something else comes to mind. And don’t worry—something else usually does come to mind.
Looping or Targeted Freewriting
Looping is similar to freewriting in that you write without stopping, but the difference is you are trying to be more focused in your writing. You can use a more specific topic to “loop” back to if you would like, or, if you do the more open-ended freewriting first, you can do a more targeted freewriting about one of the things you found to be a potentially workable idea. For example, you might freewrite with something general and abstract in mind, perhaps the question “what would make a good idea for a research project?” For a more targeted freewriting exercise, you would consider a more specific questions, such as “How could I explore and write about the research idea I have on computer crime?”
Group Idea Bouncing
One of the best ways we all get different ideas is to talk with others. The same is true for finding a topic for research: sometimes, “bouncing” ideas off of each other in small groups is a great place to start, and it can be a lot of fun.
Here’s one way to do it: name someone in a small group as the recorder. Each person in turn should give an idea for a potential topic, and the recorder should write it down. Every person should take a turn quickly “bouncing” an idea out for the others—no “I don’t know” or “come back to me!” Remember: no ideas are bad or silly or stupid at this point, so do not censor yourself or your group members.
Clustering is a visual technique that can often help people see several different angles on their ideas. It can be an especially effective way to explore the details of a topic idea you develop with freewriting or looping. On a blank sheet of paper, write a one or two word description of your idea in the middle and circle it. Around that circle, write down one or two word descriptions of different aspects or characteristics of your main idea. Draw circles around those terms and then connect them to the main idea. Keep building outward, making “clusters” of the main idea as you go. Eventually, you should get a grouping of clusters that looks something like the illustration below.
One of the key elements of journalistic style is that journalists answer the basic questions of “What?” “Who?” “Where?” “When?” “How?” and “Why?” These are all good questions to consider in brainstorming for your idea, though clearly, these questions are not always equally applicable to all ideas. Here are some examples of the sort of journalistic questions you might want to ask yourself about your idea:
- What is my idea? What are the key terms of my idea?
- Who are the people involved in my idea? Who is performing the action of my topic? Who are the people affected by my idea?
- Where does my idea take place? Where did it come from? Is it restricted to a particular time and place?
- When did my idea happen? How does it relate to the other events that might have taken place at a similar time? Are there events that happened before or after my idea that might have effected it?
- How did my idea happen, or how is it still happening?
- Why did my idea happen, or why is it still happening?
Brainstorming with Computers
Computers are a great tool for fostering these and other collaborative brainstorming techniques. For example, group idea bouncing can be used effectively with Internet “chat rooms,” with instant messaging software, or with local area network discussion tools.
You can also collaborate on your brainstorming activities with computers with little more than simple word processing or email; Here are three variations on a similar theme:
- Email exchange: This exercise is conducted as an exchange over email. Each person in a small group does a looping/targeted freewriting to discover ideas for things she is interested in doing more research about. Then, each person in the group can post his looping/targeted freewriting to all of the other members of the group simultaneously. Email also allows for members of the group to collaborate with each other while not being in the same place--after all, email messages can be sent over great distances--and not at the same time.
- “Musical computers:” This approach is similar to the previous two exercises, but instead of exchanging diskettes or email messages, members of a group of students exchange computer stations in a computer lab. Here’s how it works: a group (up to an entire class of students) does a looping/targeted freewriting at a computer station for a set period of time. When time is up, everyone needs to find a different computer in the fashion of the children’s game “musical chairs.” Once at the new computer station, the new writer comments on the original freewriting exercise. The process can be repeated several times until everyone has had a chance to provide feedback on four or five different original freewritings.
- By yourself, work with at least two of the brainstorming techniques described above or other brainstorming techniques described by your instructor.
- Working with others in a small group, work with at least two of the brainstorming techniques described above or other brainstorming techniques described by your instructor. For example, have all the members of the small group each complete their own freewriting or clustering activity on the topic of her choice. Then, compare results. How do each of you react to different exercises? Are some techniques more useful for some?