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.

Essay Structure


When students first learn to write essays, they’re often taught some version of the “five-paragraph essay.” The five-paragraph essay typically makes three related points, each with its own body paragraph. While this kind of rigid essay structure can be helpful for first time writers, it easily becomes predictable and boring. That’s why we’d like to present a different model of essay writing. On this page we provide some general advice about how you can craft essays that are organic and natural. While structure is important, we provide guidelines that are flexible and meet your needs.

Basic Parts

Every essay obviously has an introduction and a conclusion. In the middle you’ll find a bunch of paragraphs. So much for the obvious.

What’s important is that there is no set rule as to how many paragraphs you can use for any section of your essay. In a long essay, your introduction might take up two or three paragraphs. In a short essay (e.g., 3-4 pages) it makes sense to keep your intro and conclusion sweet and short. You can also have as many middle paragraphs as you like.

In other words, as long as you introduce your topic, argue your case persuasively, and provide some closure, the number of paragraphs is completely irrelevant.

In fact, writing an essay is a bit like crossing a stream. Think of the paragraphs as the stepping stones that let you get to the other side high and dry:

If the stream is wide, you’ll need more stepping stones. The same is true for an essay: the longer the essay, the more paragraphs you’ll need.


Don’t overthink your introduction. There’s no need to cram all kinds of things into your introduction. Just introduce the topic and your argument:

In other words, instead of coming up with some artificial hook (e.g., a quotation or surprising fact), assume that your topic is interesting enough to grab your reader’s attention. Focus your effort on explaining the research question or problem that drives your research. Why is your topic significant? Why should people care? If you answer the “why?” question, your reader will care enough to read on.

The Thesis

The thesis is a succinct statement of your overall argument. It should come at the end of the introduction. If you introduction is multiple paragraphs long you have more flexibility where you place the thesis.

Some teachers advice their students to come up with three points for their thesis. That is generally a terrible idea. What invariably ends up happening is that you end up writing three mini-essays that are only loosely connected.

While you can have sub-points, the most important thing is that you come up with ONE coherent argument that ties together everything in your essay.

If it takes you a few sentences to fully express your argument that’s no problem: a thesis doesn’t have to be just one sentence long.

Body Paragraphs

The middle paragraphs form the body of your essay. These paragraphs are a bit like vases: they hold the contents of your essay, and they come in all shapes and sizes:

Like vases, paragraphs tend to be more narrow in the middle. That’s where you’ll find the specifics of the argument, the quotations and the facts.

The beginning and end of a paragraph are usually more general in scope. The opening sentence (the topic sentence) indicates what the paragraph is about. It also connects the paragraph to what came before.

The trick with writing paragraphs is to remind your reader of the general argument. However, there’s no need to conclude every paragraph with a summary of what came before. Just make sure you paragraphs transition nicely from one to the next.

Lastly, each paragraph should make just one point. If you’re starting to say something new, even if it’s just a different aspect of the same point, start a new paragraph!


The difficulty with conclusions is avoiding needless repetition. Don’t let your reader zone out when you zoom out.

Try to explain why your findings matter. Point out those nuances and complexities that your thesis only hinted at, but that can now be fully understood.  Provide observations that keep your conclusion fresh and interesting.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have some general idea about how to structure your essay, take the time to study our more in-depth lessons on the various parts of the essay (introductions, paragraphs, conclusions). And, if you’re still not convinced that the five-paragraph essay is generally a bad idea, check out John Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, or read his blog post on the subject.