Before you start writing it’s a great idea to do some brainstorming. What can you write about? What kinds of emotions, thoughts, and feelings does your topic evoke? What would be a good angle for investigating your topic further?
You might be surprised by how much you know already. You may be able to come up with a good list of subjects to research.
On the other hand, if you find it difficult to come up with anything, you can try one of the following solutions: talk to a classmate, skim through a few books and web pages, or pick a different topic.
There are many possible brainstorming activities you can do. Here we provide a few examples for natural disasters. For more activities, see our page on Brainstorming Strategies.
(Skip this activity if you’ve already done brainstorming when you picked your topic).
You can do this activity by yourself or in a group. Grab a big sheet of paper and write your topic in the middle. Then draw arrows in different directions and write down any key terms you associate with your topic. It’s okay if you’re a little fuzzy on the details. The main thing is to get an idea of how you might break up your topic into manageable chunks.
Here’s an example of how you might get started:
In this brainstorming exercise you will need to use all your senses to give a vivid description of a natural disaster in its various stages. You can start by writing down some adjectives, or you can use full sentences. When you write your essay, you can use some of this description to make your writing more dramatic and evocative.
As an example, here is how a firefighter describes what it sounded like to fight the blaze in Fort McMurray in 2017:
[I]t’s too hard to describe what this all sounds like. It is constantly loud. For hours. Essentially, you have large diesel engines or gasoline engines on high idle all over the place. The pumps themselves have a way of screaming when they’re working hard. People’s houses were collapsing, barbecue propane tanks were blowing up, and people were running around yelling things at each other. (48)
Source: Hawley, Jerron, Graham Hurley, and Steve Sackett. Into the Fire: A First-Hand Account of Battling the Beast. McClelland & Stewart, 2017.
Want to try this yourself? Use our Senses Brainstorming Handout.
As a brainstorming exercise you might make a list of key terms that relate to your topic and then find suitable definitions. You can use a good dictionary or reference work, or you can see what a specific book or webpage has to say. Here, for instance, is an in-depth classification of different types of volcanoes.
Volcanoes were once categorized as either active, dormant, or extinct, according to the frequency of their eruptions, but volcanologists no longer use this classification. Some volcanoes are still categorized as extinct if they clearly no longer have a magma supply. All other volcanoes are considered active, though a distinction is made between volcanoes that have erupted at least once in recorded history (called historically active), and those for which there is evidence only of an eruption in the past 10,000 years (Holocene active). There are about 1,550 holocene active volcanoes in the world of which 573 have historical eruptions. (89)
Source: Dinwiddie, Robert, Simon Lamb, and Ross Reynolds. Violent Earth. DK Publishing, 2011. DK Smithsonian.
Don’t forget to also write down definitions when you do research and have to keep notes.
The Journalistic W’s are particularly useful for specific disasters. Here is just one example:
What? North Sea Flood of 1953
When? Jan. 31, 1953
Where? Holland, Belgium, England, Scotland. The most devastating impact was in the Dutch province of Zeeland.
Who? Over 2,500 people were killed, most of those in the Netherlands.
Why? The tide was unusually high when a powerful wind storm created higher than normal sea levels. The system of dykes and defensive barriers was not sufficient to withstand the waves.
Notice that you can apply some of the questions in multiple ways. For instance, instead of asking why did it happen? you could also ask why is it important? In this case you might note that the 1953 flood led to the construction of both the Delta Works (one of the engineering wonders of the modern world), as well as the storm surge barriers on the Thames.
Can you apply the Journalistic W’s to your chosen topic?