Brainstorming Strategies


If you struggle with writer’s block, you might try some of the brainstorming activities listed below. Of course, by themselves these techniques will only go so far. If you have to write a research paper, you should probably do some actual research before you try to develop your initial ideas.

As you brainstorm, don’t be afraid to jot down ways in which people might critique your ideas. Although in free writing any potential objections are usually ignored, you shouldn’t think of criticism as a separate activity from brainstorming. It’s good to note other viewpoints. Doing so may actually trigger further thoughts and ideas.

Brainstorming Techniques


While reading can be a form of procrastination, it can also jump start the writing process. As soon as you’ve finished a chapter or essay, copy a passage or two and write down some thoughts about it. This is a great way to force yourself to get started or keep writing.


Example of Using Lists for Brainstorming

Free writing

Set yourself a time limit (a few minutes perhaps), and start writing down whatever comes up in your mind as you contemplate your topic. Don’t worry about grammar or punctuation, or whether your ideas are good enough. The key is just to keep writing. Do remember though that this is a pre-writing technique–I’ve seen a few too many exams that look like some kind of free association.


Don’t know where to start? Begin with a description.

Topic: my experience volunteering in Nepal

The orphanage was in the tourist district, presumably so that foreign visitors would feel sorry and volunteer their time. The building was falling apart. The roof was leaking and the walls were a patchwork of faded paint and plaster. As I quickly discovered, the director was horribly corrupt, and embezzled most of the funds. The children were so hungry that they would go begging in the streets. Not that they were all orphans–most of them were simply from families too poor to take care of them.


To create vivid descriptions, employ your senses:

Topic: Dissecting a frog

Touch: slippery, clammy
Hearing: squishy
Sight: bulging eyes, webbed rear feet
Smell: the sterile smell of the lab
Taste: ugh! Not doing that.


Clustering, or mind mapping, consists of drawing a web of associations:


Jot down contrasts, similarities, oppositions, and analogies.

For example, let’s say you’re writing about antidepressants. You might start with a contrast between medicine and poison. When we examine that contrast we might remember that medicine is also a kind of poison. Indeed, antidepressants have many negative side effects (insomnia, weight gain, nausea, etc.). Knowing this, we may well wonder to what extent antidepressants are over-prescribed.


While there is no need to define well-known words, sometimes investigating the meaning and origin of a word can shed new light on your topic.

For example, why is one of Shakespeare’s plays called Much Ado About Nothing? To answer this question we might research the connotation of “nothing” during the early modern period. When we do so, we’ll quickly discover that Shakespeare is punning on “noting” (music), making a lewd sexual joke, and reflecting on human life as created from nothing (ex nihilo).

5 W’s

Let’s not forget the journalistic questions, or the 5 W’s:

What? Invention of Penicillin.
When? September 28, 1928.
Where? St. Mary’s Hospital, London.
Who? Alexander Fleming.
Why? Discovered by accident.


There are of course many more pre-writing techniques (also called heuristic methods). You can tell a story (narrative), explain cause and effect, or provide an example or two (exemplarity). Use whatever method works, but do remember that no amount of pre-writing will help you if you haven’t done enough research to inspire your thinking. So don’t be afraid to hit the books again until you’re in a better position to develop that cluster diagram or make a detailed list.