(Geothermal activity, near Lake Taupo, New Zealand)


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.

Journalistic W’s

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?



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.