When you need to think of something to say in an essay or speech, you should do something called “invention.” Generating ideas is often the hardest part of the composing process. But there are strategies that can help get your ideas flowing. The first step is to turn off your internal critic and relax. Then, try the following techniques. Your aim should be to generate as many ideas as possible—both good and bad. Once you have plenty to choose from, decide which are the strongest and most effective for your purposes, and start composing.
Brainstorming is the method of creating an informal list of ideas about your topic.
- One way to start generating ideas is to talk with others about your topic, whether in person or online. For example, you might make your writing topic the subject of an online post: “I’m trying to write a paper that argues in favor of gun control. What do you think? Pro, con, or in-between, and why?”
- Take five or ten minutes to list every word or phrase you can think of related to your topic. It’s okay to jot down only words and phrases rather than full sentences. After all, no one has to understand the list but you. Don’t worry about whether or not something will be useful—just list as many ideas as you can as quickly as you can. At this stage, every idea is worth considering.
- Identify and write down thoughts about the opposite side of your topic. For example, if you’re trying to argue that the government should subsidize the production of hybrid cars, list reasons why some people might argue against such subsidies. Once you start churning out ideas in one direction, you can switch back to your original side.
Freewriting is writing about anything that comes to mind for a set amount of time without interruptions or self-editing. Your goal is to let the words flow without analyzing or judging them. It’s a good technique to use if you are searching for a topic.
- Write for a set amount of time, either five or ten minutes. Write for the entire time, without stopping. If you find yourself stuck, simply write the same word over and over or write “I don’t know what to write” until you think of something else to say. Don’t stop to worry about the clarity of your ideas, your grammar, or your spelling. Just keep writing! If you find it hard to resist “fixing” what you’re writing, cover up the page as you go or, if you’re using a computer, adjust the screen so you can’t see what you’re writing. Keep your fingers moving until your brain is ready to follow!
- When the time is up, look over what you’ve written. A lot of it will be unusable, but you may discover important insights and ideas.
Looping is a form of freewriting that allows you to think more deeply about a topic through a series of stages and is a better choice of technique if you already have a topic in mind.
- Spend five or ten minutes writing about your topic without stopping. Focus as much as you can on your topic. This is your first loop.
- Read what you’ve written. Find the most intriguing, surprising, or compelling idea and summarize it in a single sentence.
- Write that sentence at the top of a new page, and start writing again, for the same length of time. When you finish, find the most compelling idea again. This is your second loop.
- Go through the process a third time. Each time, do your best to focus on your topic.
Clustering is the invention of ideas through a visual scheme or chart.
- Write your topic in the middle of a blank piece of paper and circle it.
- In a ring around the topic circle, write what you see as the main sub-topics. Circle each one, and draw a line from each back to the main topic.
- Think of more ideas, examples, facts, or other details relating to each main sub-topic. Write each of these near the appropriate circle, circle them as well, and draw connecting lines between the new ideas and the appropriate sub-topic.
- Repeat this process until you can’t think of any more details.
The benefit of keeping a journal regularly is that it helps you develop fluency. The more you write, the easier it gets. You can write journal entries focused specifically on your research, or you can write about whatever interests you. Even writing about something completely unrelated to your topic can help you have a breakthrough on your assignment because the more you write, the more ideas you’ll generate. If you’re not sure what to write about, try one of the following topics.
- Record your reactions to something you’ve read or seen.
- Ask questions and answer them.
- Describe people, places, and things.
- Explore fantasies, daydreams, nightmares, fears, and hopes.
- Write conversations or letters to imaginary characters.
- Examine the things you hate or love.
Finally, if you’ve tried some of these strategies and are still stuck, you may need to do some more research. After all, you can’t formulate ideas if you don’t understand your topic. Or you may just need to take a break. Many writers find ideas come to them more easily when they step away and focus on something else. If you’ve put genuine effort into generating ideas, eventually they’ll come.
Glenn, C., Miller, R., Strobeck Webb, S., and Gray, L., The Writer’s Harbrace Handbook. 2nd ed. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth. 2005.
Lundsford, A. The St. Martin’s Handbook. 6th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martins. 2008.