Two Brainstorming Techniques for Writing

I've already written about brainstorming techniques for group work. If you are a team leader or group facilitator, you can follow this link for idea generation techniques to try out with your team. In writing, however, idea generation is a solitary exercise, and this blog post is about two techniques that I've used in the past to help with this kind of brainstorming.

First, is writer's block a thing?

I don't believe it is. However, I have found different, gentler opinions on writer's block. This article relates self-doubt as a primary cause of writer's block. But I don't see it this way, and here's a different piece that supports my opinion on writer's block.

I believe that writer's block comes from a lack of ideas. My usual advice is to "Go read more stuff." The more you read, the more ideas you have in your head; the more ideas you have, the more combining ideas you can do. This combination of ideas is creativity, which is where the best, most exciting writing comes from.

The hard part of writing is getting your ideas onto paper (or at least into the writing app). Much of the struggle of writing is finding the right way to say what you want to say. Whether it's grammar, syntax, or style, the pressure to do these right creates a roadblock to getting your thoughts on paper.

So after a student has gone and "read more stuff," the next step in the writing process is to write but with a goal of getting something (anything) down on paper.

So this post isn't going to be about overcoming writer's block. Rather, you'll read about two methods you can use to get ideas out of your head and onto paper (or the screen) in front of you.

Two techniques for brainstorming your writing

Why only two? These are the only two that have worked in my writing. Down below, you'll read about mindmapping and freewriting.

Mindmapping

Mindmapping is a visual way of showing relationships between ideas. It's a brainstorming technique because you capture ideas on paper as they come, but there's a structure in the mindmap. Below is a mindmap for this blog post.

An example mindmap. A mindmap of this blog post; a radial heirarchy.

To create a mindmap, follow these steps:

  • The Central Idea. What's the central idea or main point that you are trying to capture in your writing? Starting with a blank page, capture this idea in the center of the page in few words or a short phrase.
  • Subtopics or Supporting Ideas. What are the ideas that support your central idea? These are also called subtopics. List these subtopics around the main idea and connect them to the center.
  • Repeat for sub-subtopics and other supporting ideas. Repeat the process for each subtopic or supporting idea and keep repeating until you feel that you have enough content to begin writing your piece.

A mindmap is helpful in that it injects structure into your brainstorming activity from the beginning. By working from the central idea out, you create a "radial hierarchy." This is just a fancy way of structure that expands from the center. In the end, you'll have a blueprint from which you can begin authoring your writing piece.

Freewriting

Freewriting is the other method of brainstorming that I've found which leads to successful starts in writing. This is the technique that I've advised for most of my students, partly because they don't quite know what exactly I'm asking of them.

For a freewriting session, here is what you do:

  • Schedule 10 minutes. Find a 10-minute block of time where you'll be uninterrupted. Uninterrupted is the key.
  • Focus on focusing. Find ways to create complete concentration. Earplugs help in blocking out noise. Lock your door, if possible. Turn off all notifications on your computer and phone. You only need to disconnect for 10 minutes, but disconnect completely.
  • Write whatever thought comes into your head. For the next ten minutes, write whatever ideas pop into your head. Do not worry about grammar, syntax, or style; these things will get fixed later. Your freewriting goal is to transfer as much content as you can from your brain onto the paper (or screen) in front of you. Even if your thoughts are off-topic, get those thoughts down onto paper. The forcing function of writing everything will put you back on topic.
  • Rest. Print or save your work for review later and take a break. If you did the exercise right, you'll be tired from the intensity of the concentration.

My students have told me that freewriting is a "fun" exercise. I'm not sure if it's fun or they felt a sense of accomplishment for having quite a bit of content down on paper from such a short period.

This brainstorming method is successful because I advise it only after I get a sense that the student has read enough material on their topic. If you're thinking about freewriting, be sure to take inventory of what you've read yourself or what you know so that you can chalk up a win after your own freewriting session.

What works for me

I don't do much freewriting nowadays because it does take up a tremendous amount of energy to get through a freewriting exercise. If I need to organize my thoughts beyond a simple outline, I prefer mindmapping in my journal and, if necessary, refining it in a purpose-built app. SimpleMind is the app that I used in creating the mindmap above.

If you're stuck on writing, remember: Writer's block isn't a thing. Get some more ideas in your head (i.e., read more stuff), and then try out mindmapping or freewriting to get kickstarted on the writing task in front of you.

Resources

As always, I end my articles with different tools and articles you can look into for developing yourself further. I've listed a few down below to help with your own mindmapping or freewriting tasks.

  • SimpleMind is a cross-platform app for creating mindmaps. Purchase it once for Mac OS, Windows, and different mobile platforms.
  • Wikipedia article on mindmaps. For inspiration, scroll to the bottom of the article for a gallery of different maps.
  • A good article on freewriting. I appreciate how the author shares a transcript from one of her freewriting sessions.
  • The two articles referenced above on writer's block. One that supports the idea that writer's block exists; the other is more in line with how I feel that writer's block isn't a thing.
  • Finally, my related blog post on brainstorming for teams.

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