Brainstorming is a classic method of getting as many ideas out as possible while avoiding all judgment of those ideas. It’s the first suggestion for exploration because it’s entirely natural: as soon as you get a writing assignment, your brain is flipping through ideas, even if you aren’t consciously aware of it. When brainstorming, you’re doing the same thing as running through ideas in your mind, only you’re writing them down as you think of them.
How you brainstorm will depend on the type of writing assignment you’re given. Let’s say you’ve been assigned an informative essay, and it can be about whatever you want. That’s probably the most open writing assignment you can be given, and this kind of assignment can be paralyzing: there are too many choices! This may even happen in a work situation. Don’t worry. Instead, brainstorm. Give yourself five minutes to write down whatever comes into your mind. It might look something like this:
Things I know a lot about
- Raising kids
- Raising dogs and iguanas
- Netflix and Hulu
- Being a certified nursing assistant
- Bus routes
- Living in an apartment building with noisy neighbors
- Buying a house
- Making Thanksgiving dinner
- Killing houseplants
- Maintaining a good relationship with family members who can drive me crazy
- Doing laundry
- Motivating myself to work out
These topics are random, yes, and many of them are also personal, but note how you could take a topic like, “maintaining good relationships with family members who can drive me crazy” and make it broadly applicable to an outside audience. Who doesn’t have a family member who is irritating but unavoidable? This topic probably also has some great stories that go with it, too.
What about the topic “killing houseplants”? Something like “killing houseplants” is surely funny, but it also might be broadened to be a tongue-in-cheek essay about how to NOT do simple things well. Thus, the practical and visible picture of killing houseplants can be written about to make a statement about life more broadly: how to not do simple things well in all aspects of life.
Brainstorming also works when you are given a focused topic. Let’s say you’re tasked with writing about conventional versus organic farming. You’re not particularly interested in the topic, but there it is: you must write about it. A brainstorm for that writing assignment might look something like this:
Conventional versus organic farming
- Who is most interested in organic farming?
- Who is most interested in conventional farming?
- What does conventional farming even mean? How about organic?
- GMOs have something to do with this
- The local co-op might have some ideas about organics
- I've seen organic stuff in the regular grocery stores. I wonder how the co-ops feel about that.
- Organics are more expensive
- Organics are healthier, maybe?
- Is this just about produce, or is it about meat and grains?
- If I buy food at the farmer's market, is it organic or conventional?
- Interview the farmer family down the road?
What’s happening here is a lot of questioning, which is great. It’s showing what the writer is curious about the topic, and it also shows some gaps in knowledge where the writer might need to do some research.
Beware of the tendency to want to take on every item in a brainstormed list of ideas. In the farming example above, yes, all the brainstormed items are related to the topic, but an essay explaining every one of those would look more like a book. Just one of those topics, like organics in traditional grocery stores, might be enough to write an essay. In fact, when you’ve landed on a specific aspect of the topic, you could brainstorm again for even more specific ideas on the topic.
Once you've carefully considered your audience, you will be able to narrow your topic or do some more specific and detailed brainstorming. For example, what if you need to write about organic versus conventional farming and the audience is your boss and his work-group? Brainstorm that.
It also might be time to turn to freewriting.