Developing Content

Invention or discovery is the means whereby a writer or public speaker either finds (discovers) or creates (invents) content. In academic writing or speaking, invention often is thought to begin with research, but students also use invention techniques to help them prepare for research.

Invention fosters critical thinking skills, so that as students do their research, they are more open to various problems and perspectives and more able to connect what they learn to their personal experiences and knowledge; invention also helps writers or speakers narrow a topic, clarify a thesis, develop ideas, or find arguments. In addition, once some preliminary reading or drafting is done, invention techniques can help the writer or speaker to refocus. Finally, these techniques are helpful for students who are blocked. Not all invention techniques are suited to all communication tasks. Encourage students to experiment with these strategies to find out which work for them.


Brainstorming was codified in a set of techniques by Alex Osborne in the late 1950s (Applied Imagination. NY: Scribner, 1957). According to Osborne, the ground rules for brainstorming are as follows:

  1. Don't criticize or evaluate any ideas during the session. Simply write down every idea that emerges. Save the criticism and evaluation until later.
  2. Use your imagination for "free wheeling." The wilder the idea the better, because it might lead to some valuable insights later.
  3. Strive for quantity. The more ideas, the better chance for a winner to emerge.
  4. Combine and improve ideas as you proceed (Osborne 8).

Students can brainstorm alone or in pairs, but small groups are more conducive to opening up new perspectives. To set up a brainstorming group in a class, try the following procedures:

  1. Provide a topic or let the students select one.
  2. Have students select a recorder who will keep notes on ideas that emerge. The recorder may also want to use a clustering format so as to make relationships between ideas more apparent.
  3. Ask students to call out ideas and to use courtesy. They should not interrupt or ridicule.
  4. Set aside a certain amount of time (10 to 15 minutes or longer) during each class for the students to brainstorm about the topic.
  5. If students are writing on the same topic, you can allow them to work together in pairs or groups.
  6. Never grade or evaluate the students' work in any way.
  7. Do this each class meeting for a period of time leading up to the drafting stage of an assignment.
  8. Follow up the group session with a 10-minute writing period. Ask each student to select at least one idea the group came up with and elaborate on it. Remind them the writing won't be graded or collected.
  9. If you don't have time in class, you can assign brainstorming for outside work and grade the quantity (but never the quality) of their work. Have students brainstorm a list of ideas about the topic for at least 10 minutes and then write for one hour elaborating on the ideas on the list without stopping.

Students may discard most of what they write. However, they will discover ideas about the topic that they never knew they had. This should take 20-30 minutes of class time. You can cut the time by omitting the follow-up. Don't cut the brainstorming to less than 10 minutes, however, because students need at least that much time to warm up and push themselves to think more deeply and reflectively.


For those who need a visual picture of their ideas, clustering (also called visualizing) is a helpful method of invention. Clustering can be done as a part of brainstorming groups or by students working alone.

  1. Write a word related to the topic in the middle of a page and circle it.
  2. Think of other words that come to mind when you think of the word. Let your mind be playful. Don't judge or evaluate; just let the words flow.
  3. As you write other words, circle them.
  4. If you draw a blank thinking of more words, draw lines between the words you have written that are similar and draw arrows when one word leads to another.
  5. Don't think or analyze too long about any word or connection.
  6. Continue this activity from two to five minutes.
  7. Look through your cluster to get an idea of where to begin.
  8. If you bog down in writing, resume the clustering process for another two to five minutes.

You don't need to evaluate clustering. You'll find it difficult to follow someone else's train of thought and probably won't be able to tell much from the diagram. In fact, students will benefit more if you allow them to keep the diagram they produced so that they can refer to it as they write a draft. Instead, spend a few minutes of class time discussing the results of the clustering experience, to reinforce how to do it and to encourage students to think carefully about their results.


This is a quick and easy way to encourage both deeper thinking and fluency in public speaking in a low-stakes environment. Have students spend about 3-5 minutes thinking about the topic under consideration in class. For example, they might think about how diseases spread through needle pricks and what can be done to prevent it. Preferably, they should jot down some of their ideas. Let them know that recording their thoughts will make them more effective and less nervous for the sharing that is to come.

Next, ask each student to pair up with a classmate to share ideas. Again, it is helpful if they jot something down, and for the same reasons. At the end of the activity, depending on the time allotted and the size of the class, ask at least two of the pairs to share with the whole class.

Think/Pair/Share can be a good springboard for class discussion, but even if the activity stops after two shares, the students will have taken the time to think more deeply about the topic.

Focused Freewriting

One of the best ways to get novices comfortable and fluent is freewriting, which is writing without judgment or limits (except for time). The theory behind freewriting is that the writer's conscious mind may be inhibiting ideas. While this theory is controversial, research does support the idea that writers attending too closely to rhetorical, grammatical, and mechanical issues (what is called "monitoring") may be less fluent and may tend toward writer's block.

Although some writing instructors advocate freewriting on any topic as a way to increase fluency and comfort with writing, in a content course it is likely that a more appropriate method would be focused freewriting, whereby the writer's attention is drawn to a particular topic or problem.

  1. Begin by writing your topic at the top of the page.
  2. Write for a preset amount of time (usually 10 minutes) without stopping for anything. Do not lift your pen from the paper.
  3. If you can't think of anything to write, write "I can't think of anything to write" or rewrite the last word that you wrote over and over until you think of something.
  4. Do not worry about correct spelling, punctuation, wording, or mechanics. This is for your eyes only.
  5. Do not judge your own ideas. Write whatever comes into your mind.
  6. The only requirement is that you do not stop writing until the time is up.

A variation on freewriting called "looping" was described by Peter Elbow in Writing With Power. Add the following steps to the process above:

  1. At the end of 10 minutes, read over what you have written. Look for a "center of gravity"—a phrase or sentence that grabs your attention, makes you want to elaborate, challenges you, or otherwise engages you.
  2. Rewrite that sentence at the top of a clean sheet of paper.
  3. Begin another 10 minute freewrite.
  4. Repeat again for a total of three "loops" or freewriting cycles.

The products of freewriting are best left to the student. You can't evaluate what they have done except, perhaps, in terms of quantity. If you don't have much class time to devote to freewriting, do it once or twice to teach students the procedure and then encourage them to do it themselves. Try doing it along with them, and you will get a better sense of its value.


Heuristics are systems of questioning. The Greek word heurisis means "finding" and is related to Archimedes' cry of "Eureka!" ("I have found it!"). Most methods of prewriting fit into this category. You can formulate your own heuristics to fit your discipline, but below are listed two of the most useful general sets.

Reporters' Questions. The simplest heuristic is the one reporters use: who? what? when? where? why? and how?

Classical Rhetoric. Ancient Greek and Roman rhetoricians saw Invention as a primary step in preparing a speech, and they used a system of Topics ("places"), where rhetoricians could "find" arguments. They discussed both Special Topics (that is, appropriate to a given discipline) and Common Topics (those general enough to be of use for any rhetorician). Their systems were codified by the Roman educator, Quintilian. Below is a modern version of Quintilian's Common Topics:

Definition. "What is it/what was it?" The answer to the question can be in a variety of contexts:

  • The World Trade Center towers were the two tallest buildings in New York City. (immediate context)
  • The attack on September 11, 2001 was a damaging blow to the financial industry in the United States. (larger context)

Analogy. "What is it like or unlike?" Explain something that is not familiar by comparing it to a more familiar historical or general element.

  • For many Americans, the days after the attack on the World Trade Center were like the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
  • Flying commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center towers was unlike ordinary military use of aircraft.

Consequence. "What caused/causes/will cause it?" The answer can be explanatory or can predict an outcome.

  • The attack on the World Trade Center brought America's concern about homeland security to the forefront.
  • If the governmental agencies in charge of security in the United States do not coordinate their information and efforts, another attack such as the one on the World Trade Center will occur.

Testimony. "What does an authority say about it?" The authority can be an expert, statistics, an eye-witness, or accepted wisdom.

  • Even after the attack on the World Trade Center towers, New York City Mayor Rudy Guilliani said that the city was still strong and united.
  • Over 100,000 square feet of office space was destroyed and more than 2,000 people died in the attack on the World Trade Center.
  • People on the ground near the World Trade Center said they saw many people jumping from the top floors of the towers after the airplanes hit.
  • Survivors of the attack on the World Trade Center towers will suffer much grief and depression.

The topics of definition, analogy, and consequence are the most useful in creating a thesis statement. Testimony is better for supporting the thesis.

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