Three Methods for Brainstorming: Finding Creative Ideas to Write About
Finding a Place to Think, "Word Vomit" and Collaborative Brainstorming
If you are attempting to write something meaningful and cohesive you must have some method for accomplishing your writing goal. When we decide to write, we must have methods for A) getting an idea to write about or B) developing the idea we've chosen so that it is clear.
How do you write well in a loud, noisy, distracted world? Here are a few effective brainstorming methods that I have used to help start my own writing projects and also methods I use every semester in my class.
Method 1: Find a place where you think clearly and creatively.
One aspect of brainstorming for a particular topic is to understand where you think well. For me, physical labor can help me get good ideas. For other people it is driving. Your standard composition textbook will label this is "pre-writing." Pre-writing is what happens in your mind (and sometimes on paper) before you write that first draft. It is when you are kicking things around in your mind.
I think best whenever I am doing manual labor. When I was a senior in college, a man named Jesse from my church asked me if I would like to help him build a 4 wheeler bridge across the swamp in his backyard to a small island that was part of his property. Outside of Wilmington, NC(where I attended college) there are many swamps or marshes to explore. He hired me despite my lack of experience in bridge building.
This job was 100 % fun. I put on some water waiters and walked into the waist deep water. For every 6 feet I would use post-hole diggers and set a 4x4 post down in the water, which would later be used to build a bridge. The bridge would be about 50 yards across. I started working at 8am till noon until I went to class. I did this for about 3 days straight. On the third day I realized, while methodically setting the posts, that my mind had been thinking hard about old friends from high school. It was as if my brain was trying to make sense of why I had lost touch with many people since my freshman year of college. I think the cause of this "deeper thinking," for me, was a connection between doing a repetitive task over and over(specifically that I enjoy). There's something about uncomplicated manual labor that helps the mind to think about one topic for a long time.
This is one example of doing manual labor that has provoked deeper thoughts within me. It is not that I am always "at peace" with myself while doing manual labor, but it is simply that I can think about one thing for an extended amount of time. Rather than thinking about 5 things in a span of 10 minutes(as I would if I were in my office), I can think about 1 idea for 10 minutes. Manual labor allows me to do some "productive daydreaming."
Jessica Lahey, a writer for Atlantic Monthly, wrote an article titled "Teach Kids to Daydream" arguing that children should have time daydream on a regular basis. According to Lahey, not all mental downtime is the same. Mental downtime playing video games or watching television does not allow for daydreaming. She says "I’m talking about the kind of mind-wandering that happens when the brain is free of interruption and allowed to unhook from the runaway train of the worries of the day." When the mind wanders from thought to thought without distraction, this can be healthy and even be considered "productive daydreaming." Lahey quotes another researcher named Rebecca MacMillian who names the rewards of this kind of daydreaming:
"These rewards include self- awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences, simulating the perspective of another person, evaluating the implications of self and others’ emotional reactions, moral reasoning, and reflective compassion."
All writers need "creative incubation." Especially during the brainstorming stages of an idea. To find a place or activity that encourages this kind of "productive daydreaming" is essential for anyone looking for an idea to write on, whether that is to write a novel or an academic essay.
What places would that be? Here are things I've heard students mention in the past where they think best: sitting on the floor of the bathroom to think, taking a shower, washing dishes or running. Comedian Steve Martin, who wrote a Broadway play recently, said the idea for the plot of the play came to him while he was riding his bike through New York City. Granted he said the idea came to him while riding the bike------but he had to write and rewrite the play 12 times till it was ready to actually be produced.
If Steve Martin had not been riding his bike in NYC, would he had got the idea that became the play "Bright Star?" Maybe, maybe not.
Method 2: "The Word Vomit" (Forcing Yourself to Start)
Another effective brainstorming technique is writing without thinking.
I will say to my class "OK we are going to do a Word Vomit about what you think the American Dream is." The phrase word vomit illustrates the practice of writing without thinking. Few people want to vomit, they just do and whatever comes out comes out. The phrase "word vomit" communicates this idea of no filter on what ideas come to mind. Telling students to "spend the next 10 minutes writing about what you think the American Dream is" often works. But telling them to do "a Word Vomit" makes them more comfortable and less self-conscious.
The truth is, writing is not easy or pleasurable. Therefore as an English teacher it is my job to force my students to simply start the process. I will say "Just write something, anything. Writing something terrible is better than a blank page. You can fix something that is terrible." If someone is telling you what they want to write about, this is good. But in order to actually see if they can accomplish their vision, it must be put down on paper, even if it makes no sense. You can piece fragments of a Word Vomit together for a first draft of an essay. You can't piece together what is not on the page.
The same works if you are stuck while writing. I make myself do this method almost every day. Since 2013, I open up a Word file, title the Word file according to the date and then just start writing. I type out blog ideas, plans for meetings I have to lead, work and personal emails, writing lesson plans, things I've learned during the day or something I do not understand. This is very liberating for me because it forces me to start. This is a first draft, nothing comes out perfect the first time. In the movie "Finding Forrester" this same idea applies to first drafts. Watch the 3 minute clip below:
As Sean O'Connery's character said "Don't think, just write." It will start out vague, but then it will get more specific.
Method III: Collaborative Brainstorming
After coming up with your idea, it is always good to talk to people about your idea. I would define "collaborative brainstorming" the idea of simply talking to people about what you are writing about (or wanting to write about) in order to gain perspective.
One time in my class I was having my students do a "word vomit" about what they wanted to do their concept definition essay on. The assignment was to write a 3 page paper on a concept, defining the concept in detail. As they were writing, I was walking around the class asking the students what they were going to write on. I asked one student named Alante what he wanted to write about. He said "I want to write about how God has been taken out of our society. I've written a little bit about it." My first thought was "that's not going to work. It is not a concept" Part of my job as a teacher is to guide my students towards the assignment's parameters. When students have three weeks to write an essay, I encourage them to go with the safe route of choosing something on the suggested "concepts to define" list if they choose something vague.
I was about to tell Alante that he should choose something more concrete, but then thought of the word "secularization." I said "You could do secularization." Secularization is the modern trend of moving away from religious thought in a kind of passive ignorance of religion and God. This gave him a perfect word to put into a search engine to find articles about "God being taken out of society." This gave him the link to the academic term for his idea so he could find articles and writing about the topic. As a composition teacher it is my job to help students find the academic word, the phrasing and the terminology for ideas the students have come up with. My community college students have great ideas, they just need help with finding the right vocabulary and phrasing.
I would consider this collaborative brainstorming because Alante was in the early stages of his idea. Often times the ideas we have are partially ours, but originate as much with conversations we've had with others.
Social media can be used for collaborative brainstorming. I wanted to teach a section about globalization in my English 112 class, but wasn't sure how much my students would understand the idea. In February of 2015 I posted the following two questions about globalization on Facebook: "Is globalization a good trend or a bad trend for the future of the world and/or America? What are the pros and cons of globalization?" I also defined the term and asked for resources on the concept.
The response was incredible. Over the course of about 2 days after this post had about 35 comments from various friends on the topic. It cut my research time in half because my friends had very detailed ideas about globalization and many people posted different articles, videos and documentaries I could use to teach this topic. My friends helped me make the distinction between economic and cultural globalization. Most of all, this Facebook post helped simplify a complex topic that I was interested in, but wasn't sure how to approach. I ended up teaching a section on globalization in October of 2015 which was partially inspired by the comments and feedback I had received months earlier from friends.
When your ideas are in their early stages------ask your friends questions. Whether that is at dinner or on social media, it is good to ask other people questions about ideas you are having. We ultimately end up taking the good ideas other people say and then putting them in our own words. This is also reminds us that other people have probably thought of the ideas that we ourselves think of. Hearing from others will only help inspire and inform your first drafts.
Revision is Always the Second or Third Step, Never Part of Brainstorming
Brainstorming, pre-writing and first drafts all come before you can revise something. In my class I try to give my students some time to brainstorm and write their sloppy first drafts before they begin to really organize their ideas.
Revision is when you begin to organize your ideas, commit to a main focus or argument, thinking about your presentation and taking our stale phrases. After that is when you "proofread" or edit and then check for grammatical errors. Often times people think this comes during the first hour of working on a project and that is very unrealistic. Writer and professor Paul Silva says this about first drafts:
"Your first drafts should sound like they were hastily translated from Icelandic by a non-native speaker. . .Rejoice in writing in your gnarled and impenetrable drafts, just as you rejoice in later stamping out your fuzzy phrases and unwanted words."
Therefore when brainstorming and doing your first draft, do not put too much pressure on yourself. The pain comes later when you are revising. Revision, in my opinion, is the hardest part of writing. It can be agonizing. However revision and brainstorming/first drafts should be seen as completely separate for anyone who is starting to write. If you've got an interesting idea to start off with, the revision process can be much faster and less painful.
Ultimately, brainstorming is something I put a lot of emphasis in on my class so that students will give themselves time and space to develop their own ideas. This helps them understand the writing process and establish their own personal method for "getting it done" when it comes to writing an essay. A composition teacher's primary goal should always be to help a student understand the habits it takes to write a good essay. Brainstorming is about 1/3 of that process.