2.1: Brainstorm for the Essay
This resource was written by Jaclyn M. Wells.
Last edited by Allen Brizee on March 23, 2009 .
This resource covers methods of developing ideas for the essay you will be required to write.
After you have a good grasp of what the prompt is asking, you should figure out how you will respond. You may have heard teachers refer to this stage as pre-writing. At this stage, you should brainstorm many ideas. You won’t necessarily use all of the ideas you come up with, but it’s helpful to have lots of ideas to choose from when planning your essay. After you have gathered many ideas, you’ll work on figuring out your main idea. Even though you may feel rushed to begin writing right away, it’s important to take some time to go through this step to make sure you have an interesting main idea and plenty of supporting points.
You might use one or both of the following methods to gather your ideas. Experiment with both of them to see what best helps you brainstorm your ideas.
Brainstorming Method 1: Idea Map
Drawing a map of your ideas is helpful in many ways. First, people often find that seeing a visual representation of their thoughts helps them to add more ideas and sort through them. Also, drawing a map might help you see how your thoughts connect to one another, which will help you when you begin organizing your essay.
In the center of the map, write your topic and draw a circle around it. When you come up with a new idea, write it down, draw a circle around it, and draw a line to show how it connects to the topic in the center and/or the other ideas you’ve written down. Look at the main ideas you’ve written and see if you can think of other ideas that connect to them. Remember that it is okay—actually, it is great—if you have many ideas right now. You won’t necessarily use all of them in your essay, but all it’s important to collect many ideas right now. The map below uses the sample essay topic from the previous resource to show you what an idea map might look like.
To practice with this brainstorming method, draw your own idea map using the sample essay topic.
Brainstorming Method 2: Idea List
Rather than draw a map, some people prefer to brainstorm by simply listing their ideas. This is a fairly straightforward method of brainstorming ideas. Though not as visual as an idea map, lists are a great way of finding and recording your ideas. Idea lists help you “mine” your ideas so that you have many to choose from and also help you find a main idea and supporting points, which will be useful as you plan your essay.
At the top of your list, write your topic. Writing out your topic helps you focus on it. Then, list the ideas you think of in the order that they come to you. You can use many lists to find supporting points for each of your ideas. The lists below use the sample essay topic above to show you what idea lists might look like.
Example Idea List
What is an important goal I have for the next few years?
- finishing school
- getting a better job
- keeping in touch with my friends and family
- learning a new language
How can I achieve my goal?
- to finish school, I can figure out what my goals are for school, find a school that fits my goals, and apply to schools and for financial aid
- to get a better job, I can finish school, learn a new language, search for jobs, prepare my applications, and make a list of people who will give me a good reference
- to keep in touch with my friends and family, I can make a list of everyone’s contact information, like addresses, phone numbers, and email
- to learn a new language, I can pick what language I want to learn, get a dictionary, and find a class
To practice with this brainstorming method, make your own idea list using the sample essay topic.
Brainstorming is supposed to be about harnessing the power of thinking outside the box to solve that impossible problem. It’s the magic that helps you find amazing, unique ideas.
It’s not magic, of course, but when you’re desperate—possibly with writers block—magic sounds good. Brainstorming techniques are what you turn to when you’re stuck and don’t know what to do next.
They can be great tools because anyone—group or single person—can use them.
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4 Reasons You Should Brainstorm If You Want To Become A Better Writer
But why go through the hassle of using brainstorming techniques at all? There are generally four reasons that people turn to brainstorming:
- You need ideas.
- You have a problem to solve.
- You are looking to improve creative thinking.
- You want your team to work together better.
The first two reasons get the lion’s share of the attention, but the last two, which lean toward extra-curricular exercises, are just as important. If you want to be ready during go-time for the first two, you’d better take a few practice swings at it using the last two.
Whether it’s just you or you’re a part of a team, make brainstorming and creative challenges a regular habit.
Brainstorming as a group.
First, a caveat. It’s no secret that I’m wary of group brainstorming. That particular method of getting ideas has become a standard solution for teams trying to solve problems.
While it can sometimes create more problems than it solves by encouraging social loafing and rewarding some personalities over others, there are times when your team has to get together and come up with ideas. Brainstorming techniques are also good for helping teams learn to work together.
Brainstorming on your own.
Brainstorming isn’t reserved for groups of people, though that’s how most of us think of it. There are times when you’re on your own and need to generate ideas and solve problems all the same.
As an artist and writer with deadlines, I’m most familiar with brainstorming on my own. In fact, I did a little solo brainstorming recently, for this very topic.
While trying to come up with an idea for my own blog post, I realized that it might be helpful to readers if I told them how I came up with ideas and got past creative blocks in my own work—14 ideas in all.
As I looked through those 14 brainstorming techniques, I began to see three basic approaches to brainstorming that I thought would be useful to you.
When you come to a roadblock, take a detour. —Mary Kay AshClick To Tweet
4 Brainstorming Techniques That Will Help You Write Creative Content
Brainstorming techniques can take a few basic approaches. Once you understand how they work, you can mix and match them for the best results.
1. Use associative brainstorming techniques to get unstuck.
Association is a powerful way to get past typical thinking, and to get out of a rut. We generally come up with ideas that are obvious at first, and associative brainstorming is a good way to artificially force yourself past that point instead of hours of work.
It’s a kind of shortcut that taps into the subconscious, the associations you already know but don’t allow yourself to think.
Associative brainstorming works best for copy writers, creativity exercises, or when you’re stuck in a creative project and don’t know what content to create next.
This can also be fun during your regular team building exercises.
A word storm is where you write down the words that come to mind when you see another word.
You might start with a word or two based on your project, and begin writing down any word that comes to mind. These words are then grouped together according to how they are related to each other.
You’ll quickly create words that are associated or related, according to categories.
There is a Word Storm website that can help you get started with word storm techniques.
Word associations are the same as a word storm, except that you don’t group according to how the words are related to each other. It works better as a technique to get creativity flowing when you don’t want to bother with over-thinking how words are related.
Start with a word or two, and write down the first words that come to mind. Don’t over-think the process; you should be surprised at the words that pop into your head, particularly as you get warmed up.
The goal is to find those “hidden” words that people associate with a topic that you don’t immediately think of.
Using a mind map is a way to visually organize data and information. Mind mapping has proven popular, particularly if you are better able to understand data visually instead of as lists or outlines.
Organized around a central idea, a mind map works like the branch of a tree. Ideas and then sub ideas that are associated with the main idea branch off from the central idea.
Word banks are collections of words based on the kind of word you need based on a specific topic or theme.
This kind of brainstorming technique works well for copywriters who want to find a variety of words that suit a specific project without repeating themselves. You can also use it to build a bank of words to keep on hand when writing your headlines.
This is an example of power words we pulled together in a word bank to help you write more emotional headlines.
Using a word storm might be one way to start a collection of words for your word bank, though the two techniques are not the same.
While visual associations aren’t a typical tool for content marketers, they can be useful both in planning beforehand as well as after visual content has been created.
Using visual association after a project is completed would make sure that what you’ve created doesn’t raise negative associations in your audience. It is best done by people who weren’t on the team so that their associations are honest and not tainted by being too familiar with the project.
Visual association is much like word association.
Think of a Rorschach test, in which you jot down whatever words or thoughts come to mind when you see an image. The control for this method is what images you will use.
I actually have a book where I collect images from magazines and other sources. You might do the same, or use a different image source.
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2. Use measurable brainstorming to choose the best solution.
In some situations, you need to make decisions that are based on more than random associations. This is where problem solving brainstorming steps in, when you need something concrete.
Pros and cons.
You probably already use an on-the-fly method of pros and cons to make decisions in life. Writing down pros and cons in a structured manner with a few rules can make this a powerful tool.
Write down what you are trying to choose between. Then, list the pros and cons to tally up a total. The option with the most pros is the route to go. You have to be careful to not cheat, though, and purposefully stack the list the way you want it to go.
Let’s look at an example of cheating. Say that Jim, Todd, and Erica make up Team B. Cheating would look like this:
Con: Team A will be upset.
Pro: Jim will be happy.
Pro: Todd will be happy.
Pro: Erica will be happy.
Three pros, one con, the pros have it!
Pros and cons help you cut through the gray area where you either aren’t sure what to do, or don’t want to admit what you know you should do. When done right, the numbers are convincing.
Pros and cons (weighted).
There are times when some pros and cons outweigh others. In this case, you would need to weight the list because each item is not equally important. To do this, you’d need to start by listing your top goals, the things most important to you.
Instead of each list item being counted as one, the more important items in your list of goals would have a higher weight.
Pros and cons seem simple, but we have a tendency to cheat. Often, there is a decision we want to be the right one and we try to validate it by loading the pros and cons either way.
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3. Take a new view to gain an entirely new perspective.
While associative brainstorming helps you find entirely new paths, and measurable brainstorming gives you confidence to make decisions, finding a new view works when you’re on the right track but just not able to nail it down.
It’s that feeling of being so close, but not quite there.
Ask, “What if…”
By simply asking, “What if?”, you can turn everything on its head.
Many fiction writers advocate asking yourself “what if” not only when you’re stuck, but even when the writing is going well. Wondering what might happen if something changed, and using your brainstorming prowess to run with it, is a good way to get a different view on the project or problem.
My 7th grade English teacher did me a great service when she helped us understand prepositional phrases by visualizing a box.
Prepositional phrases generally tell where something was, and so she said that any time you saw a phrase in a sentence that could be used in relation to a box, you probably were dealing with a prepositional phrase. For example: in the box, under the box, over the box, beside the box, and so on.
When it comes to brainstorming, it’s not about writing prepositional phrases, but it’s about imagining the problem or project you are working on to be like that box. What if you took a swing at it from the other side? From under it? From ahead of it?
Now you start challenging yourself to think of something from a different perspective, from a different time (past or present) and all sorts of directions.
Oddly, most of us, particularly when working in teams, have the answers we’re looking for (or close to it). We feel stuck, though, because we aren’t able to sift through all the questions and the rest of the creative noise and pare down to that answer we wanted.
By whittling away at what you know and removing the extraneous from the table, you can push aside the curtain and finally see the answer. This is where questions come into play.
Write down the questions you have about the project or problem. Then, for each of these questions, start listing the answers quickly.
As you begin to answer the initial questions, other questions will come to mind that are associated with the answers you’re jotting down. Write down these sub-questions and do the same procedure.
In a way, it’s like creating an outline that is based on questions.
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4. Tweak your brainstorming techniques to get the best possible results.
The last brainstorming technique has a bit of a twist. It’s all about the different ways you can use brainstorming techniques to enhance what they do.
Each of the previous three brainstorming techniques can be made even more powerful by using a combination or integrating a few other methods to up the ante.
Look for combinations of techniques that work well together, or that your team seems to excel at.
For example, maybe doing word associations first, and then morphing into word bank exercises is the best way to find words that work. Perhaps your designer finds great success in starting with visual associations and then using a mind map to organize those associations.
Find combinations that get the job done.
The idea switch can be used with just about any brainstorming technique in a team setting.
Start the brainstorming, but set a time limit. When the time is up, have your team members exchange what they were working on with another member, and continue brainstorming.
Each team member builds on what the other had started.
This is a good way to kick the rust out of each team member’s creativity, and force them to rethink the approach they had been working on.
It’s a kind of shortcut in that you might eventually end up there as a team. But forcing them to deal with the ideas of someone else and build on them will get you some interesting results much quicker.
As I mentioned in my own brainstorming blog post, forced limitations is a way to solve a difficult problem by creating a different problem.
With the idea that “necessity is the mother of invention”, forced limitations narrow the field of resources, options, time, or outcomes—and force the team to work with less. Often, having too many options is paralyzing, and forced limitations sparks creativity.
Think of Apollo 13.
They needed to get a square peg into a round hole in a limited time using limited materials in a way that could be recreated by the Apollo astronauts. And they did.
Imagine, though, if they had any materials they wanted, and all the time in the world. How many billions would it have taken, how many government contracts, how complicated would it have been, to get to the ultimate solution?
Sometimes the limitations are, as in Apollo 13, not at all arbitrary. They are real.
But sometimes you have no limitations and you need to create some arbitrary limitations to get the same effect. Maybe you’ll choose to reduce the time allowed for a solution, the materials available, or narrowly defined goal.
Whatever it is, you’ll see that creativity has a way of growing when there is less to work with. Forced limitations have a way of cutting to the chase, ridding the solution of the extraneous, and getting things done.
4 Reasons To Try Brainstorming Techniques
You’ve probably used many of these methods already in your life. But if you want to become a better writer, regular brainstorming will help you write more creative content.
I mentioned this earlier, but brainstorming:
- Gives you new ideas.
- Helps you work through problems.
- Improves your creative thinking.
- Helps your team work better together.
Give these brainstorming techniques a try, and see the difference they’ll provide the next time you create content.