At its core, writing is about discovering and exploring relationships between words and ideas. Your brainstorming process can and should reflect that central goal from the very beginning of the writing process. Here are a series of investigative approaches to help you expose and explore these relationships:
1.) Parse the prompt.
If you have a complicated, paragraph-long prompt, tease out each specific instruction and write it on a separate line. Highlight each keyword in the prompt, especially the verbs. Focus on each of these instructions or keywords individually, and come up with bullet points for each of them.
- For an extra visual boost, you can write each of your prompt’s requirements into one column of a chart, and use another column for your responses.
- If you’re focusing on keywords, feel free to break out the dictionary. Does the etymology of the word spark any fresh associations? What about the synonyms?
2.) Build a mind map / cluster.
There are many techniques for this, but here’s the basic idea: on a blackboard or sheet of paper, write down the central topic/question/idea as concisely as you can, and circle it. Then, quickly, write as many new ideas as you can in bubbles around the central idea. Once you’ve exhausted all of those, take a step back and see if you notice any connections between your new ideas. Draw lines between related ideas. What is the nature of these relationships? (Think of a detective’s string-pinning technique in a crime TV series. You are now that person.)
3.) Be a journalist.
The classic six questions of thorough journalistic research are: “Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?” Thinking about your topic, respond to each of these questions individually. Once you’re done, ask yourself further questions about your answers.
For example, what does the prompt ask you to do? If your prompt asks you to “describe,” that could require a “who, what, when, where,” kind of response, whereas a command to “analyze” smacks more of a “why” and “how” ilk.
4.) Examine the topic from 3 perspectives.
- Describe it: What are the main tenets of this subject? How does it resemble or distinguish itself from other ideas? What about this topic do you find most interesting, and why?
- Trace its history: When, why, and where did this idea first emerge? How has its importance changed over time? Are there any significant historical events that influenced your subject matter?
- Find its relatives: Is this idea related to any others? For example, are your ideas connected in time, or the same geography, the same government, or similar weather? Who are the stakeholders in your topic, and why? How have others considered this idea?
5 .) Free write.
Set a timer for five minutes. Write continually for all of that time, even if you’re writing mostly nonsense. Repeat this as many times as necessary. When you’re done, read your notes and extract useful words and ideas. You can also do this orally by speaking into a voice recorder. Just changing the medium like that can help you generate new ideas.
6. ) Imitate Dame Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey.
If you really need a reason to do this, watch 15 seconds of this video. The logic behind this strategy is quite straightforward, and it applies to writing as well as acting. I rarely ever start my essays at the introduction, but instead go straight to the meatiest points I can find in the middle of the action. For academic essays, the introduction requires a birds-eye-view of the whole piece, and you can’t know what that looks like until you actually write the thing first.
Here are some overall principles that will really help you to make the most of any brainstorming technique:
- Give yourself as much time as possible to brainstorm, write, and revise. I cannot overstate the importance of this. You can only give yourself the mental freedom to brainstorm if you haven’t waited until the last minute to start. (Writing under exam conditions is of course a necessary exception.)
- Resist the urge to organize too early. Note the difference between brainstorming and outlining. Brainstorming is about generating content, and outlining is where you organize that content into a workable, logical structure.
- Be messy. Take risks. This is the key principle running through all the above ideas. Brainstorming is the delightful, no-stakes section of the writing process when any nonsense you write is not only acceptable, but potentially constructive.
Benefits of Brainstorming
I consider brainstorming to be an essential part of the writing process across multiple genres, regardless of your thoughts and confidence level as you approach the page. Here’s why.
- If you fear writing, or have a classic case of writer’s block in response to a prompt, or worse, have no clearly defined prompt at all, brainstorming can help you jumpstart your thought process by giving you the raw materials you need get going.
- If you have too many ideas, brainstorming can help you make clear, informed decisions about which ideas you want to pursue, and which you want to save for another time.
- If you know exactly what to write, brainstorming helps you develop and refine your thoughts even further. The first solid thought that comes to mind may be the best, but not necessarily!
The lightning speed of some techniques, and the reflexive questioning of others, short-circuits our default bullet-point approach to come up with all sorts of crazy ideas, some of which may just surprise both you and your reader with their freshness and innovation. These are the ideas you may not have reached without pushing your mind into less familiar territory with stormier weather.
The following sites have even more(!) brainstorming resources some of which informed my selection above:
- The Writing Center at UNC Chapel Hill
- Indiana University of Pennsylvania
- Writer’s Digest
- The Web Writer Spotlight
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Looking for some other helpful writing tips? Check out some of our previous blog posts below!: