Brainstorming Tips & Techniques
For academic, business, and personal writing
Depending on your English teachers throughout your education, you've probably been taught a lot of different brainstorming techniques. Some teachers might have even explained "the best" or "the right" way to brainstorm. The truth is, as any good teacher will tell you, there is no "best" or "right" way to brainstorm. Brainstorming is anything that gets you thinking about a writing project.
Mapping, free writing, outlining, and listing are all names for brainstorming techniques. Additionally, many teachers will assign worksheets that are designed to help with brainstorming. Don't be discouraged if you've tried a technique and it hasn't worked for you. Most people have only one or two that really click with them.
If you have an assignment that requires a technique you have never tried before, try it before you discount it. It may be something that works well for you, even if you are initially skeptical. Don't think you are failing if it doesn't work, however. All failure means is that particular technique simply doesn't jive with your style.
Just because one technique doesn't work for you, doesn't mean others won't. If you find you are stuck with a required brainstorming technique you know doesn't work for you, do one that does and then go back and complete the required exercise.
If you've never done brainstorming before, are looking for a new brainstorming idea, or just want more clarification on what brainstorming is, read on.
Mapping, or webbing, involves taking the basic ideas of a writing project and arranging them visually into groups. Often a brainstorming technique suggested for beginning writers, mapping breaks the main concepts of the project into single words or phrases that are connected by lines. This enables the writer to get the general points down on paper and see the connections between items in an almost graphic form. The picture on the right is an example of mapping.
To begin mapping, the topic of the writing project is placed in the center of the page. In the example to the right, the topic is "brainstorming." Normally each idea is circled or has some sort of border around it to aid in easily visualization.
Once the topic is written down, the main points can be included. The main points are the general ideas of the topic that will appear in your writing project as paragraphs or sections. Depending on the length and depth of the project there may only be a few of these or there may be many. The points are placed around the topic and connected with lines.
Be careful that you are only listing main points, and not subpoints, on this level of the mapping. If the idea isn't something that you think you can develop into a paragraph save it for a detail (subpoint) of one of the main points. In the example, the points are "mapping," "freewriting," "outlining," "listing," and "others."
After the main points are written down, think of at least two details or subpoints for each point and write those down, connecting them to their main point as you connected your main points to the topic. For example, the "mapping" subpoints in the example are "what is it," "topic," "main points," and "subpoints." After you have all the subpoints written and connected to their respective points, you can continue thinking of ideas for the subpoints.
What you end up with, once your mapping is completed, is a visual representation of how the ideas in your writing project will be connected.
For other visual ways to organize your brainstorming, look into Thinking Maps.
2. Free writing
Free writing is probably the closest brainstorming technique to writing an actual draft. In free writing, you write your thoughts down in a flowing paragraph or paragraphs as your ideas occur. The idea is to write on the chosen topic, but not worry about organization, sentence structure, supporting points, or anything besides getting as many ideas out onto paper as you can.
In this brainstorming technique, the goal is to keep your pen moving for a set period of time, normally anywhere from five minutes to half an hour. All you are worried about is writing, stream of consciousness style, to get some ideas generating. If you run out of things to say, write "I don't know what to write" until you think of something else.
Freewriting may consist of asking yourself questions, writing key phrases, anecdotes, or pieces of arguments. It can take the form of a rough draft or just a series of ideas. All that matters is that you keep writing for your set time limit.
A variation of freewriting is the exploratory essay/draft. Exploratory essays are usually more structured than general freewriting, in that they normally consist of a basic introduction and/or a few sentences for several body paragraphs. They also do not require constant writing. Like freewriting, and other brainstorming techniques, exploratory drafts are just concerned with getting the ideas for the writing project down on paper, rather than being grammatically correct or having strong support for the ideas.
Outlining is a common organizational technique that can happen after brainstorming or be part of the brainstorming process. Informal outlines are usually used for brainstorming, whereas formal outlines are often created after a brainstorming process to aid in organizing the information.
Informal outlines may contain numbered and lettered points, like formal outlines, but often do not. Like formal outlines, each new level of points is indented. They may also have other markings, such as hash marks, dots, or stars to help visually differentiate each section or set of points.
The picture to the right is an excerpt from an informal online I did for this lens. Like mapping, an outline may start with the main theme or topic, which often serves at the outline title. In the example, the outline title is "Brainstorming Techniques."
The first point is then listed under the title. It may be a sentence, or occasionally just one or two words. My example only shows one of these points: "Mapping/webbing."
Underneath that point should be listed any subpoints that you want to address in the paper. Subpoints should be directly related to the main point, and should be indented to differentiate them from the main point. In my example, the subpoints are "what is it?" and "how to make one." I also make small hash marks next to the subpoints to help visually differentiate them.
Subpoints in an outline require three things: (1) they should always support the main point they are listed under, (2) each subpoint should have its own line, and (3) there should always be at least two subpoints listed under a main point.
If you can think of at least two further points you want to address that are specific to a particular subpoint, you can indent again and list those under the subpoint in question. In my example, the further points "purpose" and "description" are listed underneath "what is it?" and the points "topic," "main points," and "subpoints" are listed in "how to make one."
You'll notice my example also shows two more points "can have few or many" and "can add additional points." As you can see, further points can be added to any subpoint, but they must be specifically related to the point they are directly found under. It's also important to note that with each set of subpoints the ideas are more detailed and specific.
Outlining not only aids in organization, it also helps to show which points should be addressed and allows the writer to easily see which sections have less support or development than others.
The main idea of the writing project may also be written as a thesis near the top of the page. Not all outlines require a stated thesis, but knowing your thesis before you begin outlining is always helpful.
Listing is very similar to outlining but with less structure. The point of listing is simply to get as many ideas down as you can. Listing works best if you have a specific thing you want to list.
For example, if your writing project is a persuasive essay, you might list all the questions you can think of that your audience might ask about your topic. If you are writing a personal narrative, you might list all the details you can remember about a specific scene.
In the example to the right, I have listed all the different types of brainstorming I could think of in a short brainstorming session.
Lists can be long or short and be organized in any way you wish. They usually consist of words or phrases, but may also contain sentences. If you choose the listing method, make sure your list is well labeled so the list items can be easily understood if you come back to it later.
5. Other Techniques
If you are doing brainstorming for a class, the instructor may give you worksheets to fill out or activities to engage in relating to your writing project. Worksheets are normally guided brainstorming and may include several different brainstorming techniques. Instructors may also use group or class-wide discussion or other activities to aid in brainstorming.
Brainstorming does not have to be confined to writing something down on paper. Anything that helps get the ideas flowing and give you a better grasp on what you want to write can be considered brainstorming. If you've noticed you think better when you are jogging, or cleaning, or walking your dog, try doing one of those activities while you think about your writing project. Once you have some good thoughts and a possible plan of action, you can sit down and try writing a draft or simply jotting down notes on your brainstorming.
If you are in a class that requires evidence of brainstorming, even if you do your brainstorming in your head, you will still need transfer that mental brainstorming onto a sheet of paper. This habit is a good idea for those not required to show written evidence as well. That way you have a written reminder of everything you mentally brainstormed, instead of relying on your memory alone.