Brainstorming: How to Get Started

By: Isabel Barney

Once you’ve read and decoded your assignment, it’s time to begin brainstorming some ideas. While there is no step-by-step way to generate ideas, these are just a few examples of places to look for inspiration if you’re feeling stuck and ways to organize your initial thoughts. Oftentimes, one method of brainstorming can lead you into another, so you may end up combining some or all of these methods as you begin coming up with ideas.

Research

  • While some types of writing do not explicitly require you to do additional research, it can be helpful when generating ideas to look at some past work related to your topic. Briefly researching your topic and ideas related to it can help you figure out where to start with your own writing.
  • For this initial research, class notes and readings are often great places to look first. Flip through what your professor has said about your topic and jot down any thoughts that come to mind. Do you see any overarching arguments forming based on what was discussed in class? Could you use points from lectures and readings as evidence to support your argument? 
  • Next, even if additional research is not required, it can be helpful to look outside of your class when trying to learn more about a topic. Again, briefly searching through some additional work related to your paper topic can help you learn more about it and refine your own argument. However, some professors specifically ask you not to do any outside research, so, if this is the case, skip this step.
  • By the time you finish this background research, you should have some useful notes that shed light on your topic. Take a few minutes to look through the notes you’ve collected and try to notice any overarching themes. Do these notes point towards any major changes and/or continuities over time? Do you see any individuals, places, or ideas showing up repeatedly? Try to pick out these themes and connect them back to the questions asked in your prompt, if the assignment has one.

Freewriting

  • Freewriting can be a useful activity if you’re feeling particularly stuck and aren’t sure how to organize your initial thoughts. The whole point of this activity is to get your thoughts down on paper and not to worry about using proper grammar and spelling or writing elegantly.
  • To start, set a timer for a short period of time (5-10 minutes) and write down your ideas as they come to mind. Try to keep writing for the entire time, even if you feel like you’re running out things to say — you can even write down, “I can’t think of anything else,” as long as it keeps your pen moving across the page for the entire time. You can also choose to write in a “train of thought” style (again, not worrying about sentence structure or grammar) or in lists or bullet points if it’s easier for you to communicate your thoughts that way.
  • After your time is up, take a look at the ideas you came up with. Try to think about which ones were easiest to write about, which ones you find the most interesting, or which ones you feel like you could write even more about. These points will often end up making the strongest starting points for your larger argument. Using a highlighter or pen, highlight/underline these ideas to separate them from the rest of your freewriting.
  • Once you have narrowed down your initial ideas, it’s time to explore them further. At this point, you can start looking through class readings and notes, begin outside research, or jump into constructing an initial outline for your paper.

Mindmapping

  • While mindmapping is not always the first thing people think of when trying to plan an essay, it is an amazing way to get your initial ideas down on paper in a way that creates a clear visual structure. Mindmapping essentially combines the processes behind freewriting and outlining because it requires you to quickly write your thoughts down, then take a second look at them and begin making connections between them. Plus, it can also be a more fun and engaging way to get started on a paper than sifting through readings or typing up notes on your laptop.
  • Start with a blank (preferably large) sheet of paper. Write your main topic in the center using as few words as possible.
  • Then, moving away from the center, write down any related ideas you can think of, and place them wherever on the paper feels right to you. If you run out of clearly related ideas, think of opposites, tangentially related topics, or any other words that come to mind whenever you think about our main topic. The point of this step is to get all of your ideas down on paper, so try to jot down anything and everything that comes to mind.
  • Once you’ve put all your thoughts on paper, begin circling ideas that relate to each other and connect these circled ideas with a line. For this step it can be helpful to use different colors and patterns (zig-zag lines, dotted lines, squiggly lines, etc.). Continue doing this until you have connected all the ideas that you feel strongly relate to each other. You may end up with a couple outliers that don’t have any connecting lines, but these can be helpful in narrowing down what you should focus on in your paper.
  • Then, take a step back and look at your completed map. By looking at the different clusters you have made, you can try to come to some conclusions about your topic. These clusters may point you towards ideas for body paragraphs, where to look for evidence to support your argument, or how to formulate an initial thesis statement. You can take some of these ideas from your mindmap and move them into an outline, or you can continue the mindmapping process to get some more thoughts on paper.

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