Brainstorming is useful whether you have too few ideas, or too many. It can help you whether you don’t know how to organize your thoughts, or whether you don’t even have any thoughts.
Before you start, remember the first rule of brainstorming: Enumerate, don’t evaluate. Just get the ideas down, and don’t judge them or organize them until the creative phase has wound down.
Here are five strategies to help:
In this strategy, a topic or idea is examined from six distinct viewpoints—hence the name.
• Describe the topic (what is it?);
• Compare it (what is it like or unlike?);
• Associate it (what does it make you think of?);
• Analyze it (what constituent parts is it made of?);
• Apply it (how can it be used?), and argue for and/or against it (how can you support or oppose it?).
Cubing was developed as a critical-thinking exercise to help students express their thoughts in opinion essays, but it can be adapted for general nonfiction writing, though it is of limited value for fiction.
A similar technique is to explore three perspectives: The first is to describe the topic and its features, its constituent parts, and its challenges, and to compare and contrast it with other topics. The second is to trace the history of the topic and the influences on it throughout that history, and the topic’s evolution. The third is to map the topic to similar contemporary topics as well as to its influences, and to topics that it influences.
Write. You don’t know what to write? Then write that. Just write.
Have a quantitative goal: 500 words, three pages, five minutes—it doesn’t matter. Just write.
Do not pause in order to spell correctly or write flawlessly, and don’t go back to rewrite. Turn off your inner editor. Do not strive for coherence. Just write.
Consider closing your eyes while you’re writing or typing, or turn the computer monitor off. Just write.
If your intent is to write an essay or a review or profile, what do you want to communicate? If you wish to craft a story, which ideas and elements do you wish to convey? Jot down a list of phrases or single words you will return to later.
For nonfiction, the list can consist of opinions, arguments, facts, questions, or components, or any combination of the above. For fiction, list people, places, and things, values and qualities, goals, and obstacles.
Don’t outline at this point. Outlining stalls the creative act of brainstorming by requiring you to evaluate and organize your thoughts. Remember, brainstorming should be an uninhibited activity.
Mapping, also known as clustering and webbing, is a graphic form of listing that simply involves jotting down ideas on a large writing surface and then making connections by associating similarly themed ideas with color-coded circles or underlines of distinct patterns and then indicating other relationships by linking with lines.
How you produce the map, exactly, is up to you, but as with any other brainstorming tool, wait until you’ve (temporarily) run out of ideas before you begin making connections—but don’t hesitate to continue recording new ideas as you marshal others.
You know the topic you want to write about, or the outline of a novel’s plot, but you don’t know how to populate the piece with ideas? Go to the reference section of a library, or call up reference websites.
As you read about a current or past event, or a contemporary or historical issue, record the ideas in list or map form. You might find the key point you’ve been looking for, or change the one you had in favor of this new detail.
If you’re planning on writing a novel, learn more about the city or country in which it takes place (even if it’s the one you live in). If it’s a historical novel, read about the social structure and cultural atmosphere of the time and place, and take notes about how people dressed, talked, ate, worked, and engaged in other quotidian activities.
The next step
If one of these strategies doesn’t work for you, try another until something clicks. Even if one does work, try more than one.
Then, whichever technique(s) you’ve employed, review your result. Don’t feel that you’ve failed if your work does not yield eloquence or epiphanies, but search for whatever may help you develop your writing assignment or project.
If you feel that an outline is useful, make one after you complete the brainstorming activity. If you don’t, launch into whatever part of the topic attracts your attention based on your brainstorming output. You don’t have to start at the beginning, and you don’t have to complete one part of your assignment or project before you move on to another one. Just build on your background work one piece at a time as it develops.
Mark Nichol is editor of the website DailyWritingTips, where a version of this story first appeared.