This guide includes strategies for generating ideas at the start of the writing process. Read through the list, choose one or more you feel ready to try, and get started brainstorming.
To generate new ideas
- Brainstorm in a new space. Try writing by hand, on your phone, on a large sheet of paper, in an email draft, or any space that feels new to you. Write down any ideas that come to mind about your assignment.
- Talk it out. Try recording your ideas about your essay on your phone (or another voice recorder). Later, you can go back, listen, and transcribe.
- Work with a partner. Ask your partner to take notes as you talk through your essay. Then, take notes as your partner describes their own ideas. Exchange notes.
- Reverse brainstorm. If your paper is meant to solve a problem or make a recommendation, reverse the problem. Ask yourself, “What would have the opposite effect? What wouldn’t help with this problem?” Write down everything that comes to mind. Then, reverse your notes to come up with a list of useful recommendations.
- Brainstorm in a language other than English. If you speak, read, or write more than one language, use all of your languages in the brainstorming process. You may think of some ideas in your native language and others in English—give yourself the freedom to get your ideas out in whatever language they come in. By the end, your paper will include a mix of words, phrases, drawings and/or questions in one or two languages. (You can do this work on a blank sheet of paper or using the Brainstorming Cluster.)
To start drafting
- Write the easiest part of your paper first instead of starting with the thesis, argument, or introduction. For example, you might begin by describing your evidence, writing about your object of analysis, or using a key term from your assignment or class discussions as a starting point. Pre-writing will help you develop your main ideas later.
- Set a timer and type (or write by hand) without stopping. Start small (five–ten minutes), and then try for a longer stretch. Resist the temptation to pause, and focus on keeping your hands moving. This might require following a tangent or skipping to a part of your argument that feels easier to write, even if it’s disconnected. The goal is to get your ideas freely flowing and to get rid of that stressful blank page.
To work through anxiety about an assignment
- Write down what you’re worried about. Take out a new page or open up a new file, and write about any anxieties you have about this assignment: Is there a concept you’ve struggled with this semester? Critical feedback you’ve received in the past? A really busy week ahead? Try to produce one page of free writing. Nobody will read what you’ve written, and you can write in any language. The goal is simply to get these first thoughts or fears out of mind. When you reach a stopping point, start planning your work: switch to another brainstorming strategy, create a todo list, and/or identify who you might ask for help.
- Write a draft for yourself (rather than a draft in which you think about the reader or instructor). Write down any idea that comes to mind, in response to the assignment—you can be as messy, unstructured, or informal as you’d like. Later, you can focus one step of your revision on meeting your readers’ needs.
To start working with sources
- Pull quotes, data, or arguments from your sources. Then, draft how you’ll frame each piece of evidence. Why is it important? How does it support or complicate your argument? Do you agree? What do you know about the author or context?
- Start by close-reading. If you’re working on a paper that requires close-reading, take out your text and select a short passage that interests you. Reread, underlining or circling any parts that seem important. Freewrite for ten minutes—write down any ideas that come to mind about what you have read. Answer the following questions to get started: Why do you think you chose this passage over others? What is significant about it? Do you notice any patterns or repetition? Any contradictions? How do you think others might interpret this passage? If you wanted to explore these ideas more, what other passages would you select?
To plan your approach
- Annotate your assignment. Note questions, circle or highlight important parts, and make the following lists:
- List the “action verbs”
- List the questions you know you’ll need to answer
- List points from your readings/notes that you know you’ll want to use
- Make a to-do list of all the actions you will need to perform to successfully complete this assignment
- Write an outline. You might try:
- A topic outline: list topics and sub-topics for short assignments that do not require an argument (memos, cover letters, response papers, etc.)
- A claim outline: list claims and sub-claims for an argumentative paper to check whether the logic of your argument makes sense
- A storyboard outline: when you have a lot of important points, but don’t yet have a clear idea of what order they work best in, write them out on note-cards and experiment with arranging them in different orders
- Organize visually. Start with a blank page and map your ideas out:
- Write down one important word or phrase in the middle and circle it.
- How do the other items you need to include connect to this main idea? Would you use straight lines to connect these ideas? Overlapping circles? Draw your ideas in any form you’d like.
- After, consider what the relationship between your ideas might be. Take notes for possible transitions or missing links.
- Alternatively, try filling out the Brainstorming Cluster or Flow Chart.
This resource from the Baruch College Writing Center is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You are free to share, adapt, transform, or otherwise use this material in any medium, with attribution.