Cooking Up Ideas, Cleaning Up Thoughts: Brainstorming Techniques to Get You Started on a Paper


While working in writing centers and as a student at the undergraduate and graduate levels, I’ve been exposed to a number of different brainstorming techniques. Freewriting. Clustering. Looping. Outlining. And so on. Sometimes in school I was forced to brainstorm using one particular style. Although this did help me to better understand each individual method, as I’ve gotten (hopefully) to a higher level of thinking and writing I’ve continually realized that every writer has his or her own brainstorming preference. Each of us has our own writing process, and brainstorming is a large part of that.

I think it’s beneficial to use trial-and-error to test out different methods, but when you find something that works for you, hang onto it and never let go. Here are the top five brainstorming techniques that I’ve clung to:

1. List making: If I’m working with a writing prompt, I’ll often write the question at the top of the page and then make a list of everything the prompt makes me think of beneath it. I usually take a look at my list when I’m finished and put stars next to any ideas I think I need to include in my paper. I’ll admit, my lists probably don’t make the most sense to an outsider, but they do a world of good for me since I can decipher my secret code.

2. Outlining: I know many people who pretend to faint when they hear the word “outline,” because their instructors branded them with roman numerals I to V and upper and lower case letters of the alphabet in their younger years. No, that’s not a scarlet ‘A’ on my chest. It’s worse – the horrific formal outline ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and ‘C,’ I could imagine them saying. But I’ve found that creating a loose outline for a paper helps significantly with organization and development. If I did no prewriting for a paper, my thoughts would be all over the place. Without an outline, I could potentially be writing a paragraph about cheesecake and shift my focus to the habitats of sloths in the next paragraph. It sounds absurd, I know, but outlining has been the most effective way for me to maintain the overall focus of my paragraphs and paper as a whole.

3. Completing other activities (but keeping a notebook nearby): One of the best ways to think about your paper is to not think about your paper (if that makes sense). What I’m actually suggesting is that you step away from your paper and go about your daily routine but keep the paper in the very back of your mind. You’d be surprised how many ideas you can devise about Othello while you’re vacuuming, drying dishes, or dusting a shelf. The benefit is you can “write” much of a paper in your head and end up with your house in pristine condition. Think about your paper, but trick yourself into thinking you’re doing/thinking about something else. I would suggest, however, you consider keeping a notebook nearby for those grand slam ideas that you may forget if you don’t jot them down.

4. Pulling key quotes: I’m a big annotator when I read. If I’m really stumped on a paper, I sometimes return to the text to look at what I’ve drawn lines under, circled, or written “LOL,” “Are you kidding?,” or “Huh?” next to. It helps me to remind myself of what struck me upon first reading. What did I react passionately to and why? Finding what interests you in a source is one of the best ways to make your eventual paper engaging to your reader. So sometimes the only way to move forward with a paper is to move backward to the text.

5. Surfing online: When writing these CWE blogs in particular, I often feel lost when I first look at the prompt. Take, for example, this one: “What are your favorite ways to brainstorm?” I start by making a list (see #1 above), but at some point the creative juices stop flowing. My next step is usually to type key words into a Google images search. In this case, I might type in “brainstorming,” “prewriting,” and “clustering” and browse through the results until I find something that motivates me to add another item to my list. Sometimes I find images that don’t help me one bit (see Exhibit A below), but other times I find images that are very useful. At times, I even include these images in my blog posts. Since I would characterize myself as a visual learner, actually seeing examples of what I plan to write about is a great starting point. I don’t use this technique for academic writing, but it can certainly be adapted for academic purposes. For instance, instead of brainstorming by looking at images, you might look at research on different websites to spark your imagination. Just remember, though, to track your sources in case you want to cite this research later in your work.

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

Again, we all have our own brainstorming techniques. But it couldn’t hurt to experiment with one another’s techniques if ours are no longer meeting our expectations. I’m an avid believer in prewriting (or prethinking), but you need to determine what that means to you and how you can best go about doing that. Maybe it means sitting down with a pen and paper or cozying up to a keyboard. But it could also mean looking at a paper prompt and then heading to the kitchen to cook yourself a five course meal. In doing so, you might be surprised to find that your mind cooks up something too.

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  • Vanessa says:

    Julie, you are so organized and on top of things! I should try out some of your tips. Keeping a running list that I can add to when I’m inspired is such a good idea, and having a list that I could refer back to would really help at the end of the semester when I’ve forgotten everything I really wanted to write about from the start of the semester.

  • Julie Candio Sekel says:

    I actually did keep a running list last semester for our American Lit. class. After doing the readings at home for the course or during class discussion, I would write an idea or two for my final paper in my notebook alongside my class notes. It was really helpful when it came time to decide what I wanted to write about because I already had a bunch of ideas right in front of me!

  • Nicole Wittenburg says:

    Love #3. I definitely always have the paper in the back of my mind when I do other things. I call this the “marinating” stage of writing, because the ideas just have to sit and get ready before I can do something with them!


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