5 Brainstorming Strategies for Writers

By Mark Nichol

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. But 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.

1. Cubing

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.

2. Freewriting

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.

3. Listing

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.

4. Mapping

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.

5. Researching

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 Web sites. 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.

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9 Responses to “5 Brainstorming Strategies for Writers”

  • Deborah H

    Husband is a HUGE fan of mind mapping (he’s a beta tester). He uses it for everything, and will help me mind map too, if I ask for help (I am a bit slow with mapping). It’s wonderful to see all your thoughts arrayed before your on a screen.

    I am big on research. Nothing kick starts my imagination like a day in the library, and I have found that most librarians are so pleased and eager to help. They know all this arcane information, and just want to share it. I don’t know how to say this politely: I suck up to the librarians; they are the gate keepers.

  • W.C. Camp

    Great tips – I think I am going to use that listing technique to change-up the different restaurants I want to eat at!! Seriously good stuff to help especially if a case of writers block drops by! W.C.C.

  • George Hall

    I have actually just started using a program called MindGenius which allows me to brainstorm and map. I have been using it to come up with various plot ideas for books, character names and themes etc.

    It is great having everything in front of me and being able to move things around without too much effort. I can also quickly review my ideas so far and strengthen them if something else relating to a specific section pops into my head.

  • Wolf Hoelscher

    Listing works for me best. Especially for copywriting. Thanks for the ideas!

  • Stephen Thorn

    As an example of listing, I submit “Talk to Me, Fiddle” a song by country music legend Charlie Daniels. It goes through the (possibly fictional) history of his fiddle — how it came to America in the suitcase of a Jewish immigrant fleeing persecution in his homeland and how he played it at his daughter’s wedding, how it was used as a bet in a poker game on a Mississippi riverboat, how it was bought for a dollar by an elderly black man who “taught” the fiddle how to play the Blues, etc. Whether the instrument really went through all those hands isn’t the issue, it’s the history that is the story. By imagining where that fiddle may have been and what has happened around it since it stopped being a tree and started being a violin you create a colorful, deep, human tale. Such a simple technique can be applied to almost any used object (the older, the better) — a rusty can opener, tarnished pocket knife with a chip out of the blade, hand mirror, antique car, etc. — that you could find in any junk shop or museum. This is a rich resource for creating a story when your creativity is at low ebb.

  • Raina

    I’ve only used a couple of these tips. I think I will be trying some new ones out, now though. Thanks so much for the ideas!

  • HP van Duuren

    Thanks for your post Mark,

    Those are intresting approaches, one of the techniques that I also frequently like to use, looks a lot like the Free Writing only although I also don’t worry about organising it while writing, I do write with some sort of guiding ‘Assignment’ in mind. The asignment is simply to write about the thing I want to write about and than just start writing about it.

    For example I want to write a comment about some of the way’s I do my brainstorming, telling people about how I use an Assignment as a Guide for it, like I just wrote about.

  • GSGS

    Inspiration is a program that you can use for mindmapping.

  • bob

    I’m working on a novel, in which the story plays out OK. My problem is that I keep switching from narration to dialogue, and then vice versa. I get the impression it’s bitty, and the reader might get confused, after getting involved in the dialogues, to find himself back with the narrator, who isn’t the hero of the novel. any suggestions here?

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