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Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches brainstorming techniques and their value in the writing process.

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Video Transcription

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Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? We'll learn about the writing process, focusing primarily on the first step in it, brainstorming. We're going to talk about brainstorming strategies and how they can help writers get started on a writing project and then take a look at how brainstorming can help with choosing a topic as well.

As you may recall, the writing process refers to the eight recursive or recurring steps that writers use to maximize the effect of their writing time. Brainstorming, which we'll spend the rest of our time looking at, is the first of these eight steps. So let's get started looking at how to get started.

First, let's talk about what brainstorming entails and what it's good for. Brainstorming is using any of a variety of techniques, which we'll talk about soon, in order to generate ideas and to clarify thinking. Essentially, writers use these strategies to find out what they think about a given subject.

When presented with a topic or even considering a new area of interest, brainstorming allows writers to find out what they already know and believe about that subject. It's also great for generating ideas. Once those writers know what they know, a brainstorming technique can help them sift through that knowledge for ideas that might be useful for whatever writing project they're beginning.

And it's great for exploring a topic. By giving writers the chance to discover what they think and generate ideas, brainstorming simultaneously allows them to explore a topic, finding tangential or related areas they might want to consider, as well as marking the boundaries or scope of the topic area.

Finally, it can be used for finding a manageably focused topic for whatever writing project they're considering. Given a particular goal, for example, a short three-page essay about blank, brainstorming can help writers figure out not just what they can write about but what they can't.

So now that we know what it's good for, how do we go about actually brainstorming? The term brainstorming is used to encompass many different techniques, each different from the next, but all unified by a similar purpose. We'll go over five of them.

But keep in mind as we do, that it's unlikely that any writer would perform every one of these every time he or she begins a writing project. Rather look at each of them with an eye for how they might help you with a given writing project. Since your needs will change each time you begin the process, so too should the writing process itself.

Anyway, the first technique we'll look at is called clustering or mapping. This is a way to generate ideas using words and shapes with lines to show the connections between them.

To perform this technique, first think about your subject. Let's say it's pie. I don't know why, maybe I'm hungry, but go with me.

To create a map or cluster of pie, you write the word, then surround it with all the other words you can associate with it. Notice how here, a quick and obviously incomplete cluster, you can still see something of my thought process, how I went from a broad related subject to more specific examples and how I even found a different translation of the central term, one unrelated to anything else in the cluster.

Another strategy that fulfills a similar function is listing. Lists are also useful for generating thoughts related to a topic, question, or problem. But here, as you can see in my example, they generate it in a more structured, ordered matter.

Unlike a cluster, which can take any form it wants, lists tend to promote a hierarchy, as the first ideas you think of are placed higher. Some prefer this, while others don't.

Another brainstorming technique that many writers find useful is free writing. It's also referred to as stream of conscious writing or free association. Prewriting is probably the simplest technique we'll cover. But it can achieve great results.

All you need to do is start writing. Write anything and everything you think of as fast as you can write. Keep going until you can't think of anything else or, your hand hurts from holding a pencil, or your keyboard is steaming. Don't worry about grammar or even making sense. This is for you to look over or not.

Notice how my own mini free-write still contains much of the same information as the lists or clusters I made earlier. But here again, it's presented differently, because it was made differently.

Another technique that can sometimes come in handy is the five W's, who, what, when, where, and why. To use this technique, simply ask these questions about your topic or in response to a question you're asked or a problem you're faced with.

Here, most of my questions came out fairly useless, no doubt in part because of the silly nature of my example topic. But look, even here on my last question, I found a kind of insightful statement, an answer to a question I probably wouldn't have bothered asking myself if I wasn't doing this brainstorming technique.

The last technique isn't one you can do yourself really, but it can still give beginning writers an advantage when starting a project. Directed writing is writing that responds to questions or assignments given out by a teacher. Often, writing prompts will come with not only a topic but related questions or mini prompts, designed to encourage the kind of open-minded thinking that brainstorming is all about.

If, for example, my made-up teacher asks me a question about what pie means to me, this might be my response. Note, how it's already starting to sound a little bit like an essay. Perhaps, a thesis statement lurks somewhere in there, or at least an interesting narrative that might help me find one later. Who knows?

And that really is the point behind brainstorming. You don't know, or at least you don't know you know about your subject. And so you brainstorm in order to organize your thoughts and to bring up to the surface some of the thousands of things you don't know that you already know about it.

As for how you get there, it depends on you. Any of these techniques can help you. But it's up to you to find out which is best for you personally in order to find ideas, generate material, and beat writer's block before it starts.

One of the things brainstorming is best suited for is finding a topic to write about. Often, essays and other assigned writing projects come with a broad subject, but not necessarily a topic. A topic, for the purposes of academic writing, is the overarching focus of an essay or other piece of writing. It's what the essay is about, if not necessarily what exactly it's saying about that.

Any of the brainstorming techniques we looked at can perform this function. If, for example, I was assigned to write an essay about, yep, you guessed it, pie, I might use clustering or mapping to figure out what I might want to write about pie. So let's look at my map again.

I notice immediately that I've got connections between types and desserts and party. And while those might all be interesting, I think it's the connection that I seem to be making between the party and the subtopics of Thanksgiving and grandma and the notion of dessert that might be most productive.

It's interesting that, given just the word pie, I started thinking about my grandmother. Maybe I'm most interested in the way that food, in this case pie, can get mixed up in our memories.

I mean, think about it. My grandmother, who died years ago, is in part remembered by one of her only grandsons because of the sight and smell and taste of a kind of dessert she would make only once or twice a year. So maybe I'm really interested in that, food and memory. That's not a subject but a topic I could write about for sure.

Hopefully, despite my odd choice and subject matter, you've got a sense for how brainstorming can help you find a topic, the distillation of your potential essay's argument or main point.

What did we learned today? We learned about how to begin the writing process by brainstorming, including an exploration into strategies and techniques and how it can help you choose a topic for your writing project. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

Using a variety of techniques to generate ideas and/or clarify thinking.


The overarching focus of an essay or other piece of writing.