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Techniques For Brainstorming Essays


Even the most experienced writers often find starting to be the most difficult part. In this article, you will find four of the most popular methods of brainstorming that should help you hone in on your topic and devise your supporting points. There is no right way to brainstorm, and what works for some writers may not work for others. If you are finding that one particular technique is not particularly helpful in stimulating ideas, abandon it and try another.

Pre-Brainstorming Tips

  • Start early. It is difficult to produce a meticulously polished, well-articulated paper that has been thrown together last minute. The earlier you start your brainstorming, the sooner you can come up with an excellent thesis sentence (your golden ticket to your dream school!).
  • Analyze your prompts. Before you start thinking of answers to the prompts, make sure that you have a very clear understanding of what each prompt is asking (for more on understanding essay prompts, see Decoding the Prompt) However, understanding the prompt is not your only task. Simply identifying and answering a question is not enough. Regardless of what the prompt may be, it is very important to portray yourself as an excellent candidate for the school to which you are applying (think of this as the question behind the question.

Let’s take a look at the first prompt option for the Common Application:

Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

While brainstorming, you should try to not only come up with stories that are central to your identity, but also ones that have had a positive impact on your identity. Do not tell a story that has helped you develop a social anxiety or a fear of heights. Try to come up with a story that has helped you develop positive skills that are relevant to your capabilities as a student.

Brainstorm over a series of days. Try different brainstorming techniques for each of the different prompts to see which prompts and techniques yield the best results.

Brainstorming Techniques

Now that we have given you a way to approach the prompt, here are some useful brainstorming techniques for coming up with topics, subtopics, and support (for more on how these are used in an essay, click here).

1. Freewriting: Write down every idea that comes to mind when you think about your essay topic. Set a time limit (5 minutes is usually a good starting point) and, most importantly, do not go back and edit. You can write anything in your freewriting; this includes things that may be completely irrelevant. Freewriting is simply intended be helpful in getting you into the creative thinking mode.

Take a look at John’s Freewriting sample that was written in response to the first Common Application prompt:

I used to spend summers at a cabin while growing up. My brother and I used to play on the train tracks. My grandfather built the cabin. My mother used to always go to Germany when I was little. My brother begged my dad for a canoe and he said he could have one if he saved up. Then I copied him and saved up for one too. My little sister got an iPad instead. Germany- the farm house. The house was so integral to my childhood, I was so upset when my family had to sell it. But that wasn’t what was important.

From here, John may choose to write about his experiences at the family farm house in Germany and how those experiences unexpectedly came to an end. He might choose to convey how, although he has such fond memories of this farm house, there came a point where he had to move on and let go. As you can see, the freewriting is unorganized and most will probably not yield any results, but this is completely okay. Just as we mentioned before, freewriting is simply an exercise to get thoughts flowing and can be very useful during the earlier development of your ideas.

2. Play the Journalist: Think of yourself as a journalist asking yourself questions about your topic. Answer Who?, What?, When?, Where?, Why?, How?

Let’s continue with our example in response to the first essay prompt. So far, John has decided that he will write about his or her experience at the family farm house in Germany. Observe how Playing the Journalist might lead to further idea development as follows:

Who? My entire family. The farmhouse used to belong to my grandparents. I hoped that when I would have a family one day, my children could visit it.

What? The farmhouse on property that has been in my family for years. Now it has been sold.

Where? In Germany, near Korbach, the town where my parents got married.

When? Last year it was sold. I had visited it almost every summer while my grandparents were still alive.

Why? It was sold because nobody in the family wanted to move out there to take care of the property.

How? I was able to get over it because I realized that the effect of the farmhouse was extremely positive on my family. So, although the farmhouse is no longer around, we will always reap the benefits.

As you can see, John can cater the questions to his needs. This forces John to think about how he might approach his topic from different angles. From here, John might decide to focus on the short term and long term benefits that his family has received as a result of the farmhouse. These benefits are intangible and much more valuable. Having a strong sense of duty and moral background are very admirable qualities to demonstrate to a university.

3. Clustering/idea mapping: Take a general idea and circle it. From there, write ideas that are subcategories of the original idea in surrounding circles, and join them to the center circle with lines. Ideas can stem out from the outside circles, gradually contributing to more narrow topics. The following example is Charlotte’s writing in response to the fifth essay prompt on the Common Application:

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

As you can see, Charlotte has decided to write about studying abroad (in purple in the center of the web). She has come up with three subcategories (in blue), which can be the main topics in her body paragraphs. From there, Charlotte’s supporting evidence may come from the ideas in green, which represent support for her subcategories.

4. The “X is Y” Approach: Try to fill in the following blanks in a way that relates to potential essay topics:

_____________is/was/are/were _____________

Once you think of one topic, you will then be forced to think about a different perspective on that topic. This can be useful if you have a general idea of your topic but you would like to present it from a different angle.

The following example is from Alex, who came from a family of self-made entrepreneurs. Therefore, the first paycheck that each of his sibling receives is a rite-of-passage of sorts. Alex knows he wants to write about his first job and how in his family, earning your first paycheck marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. However, he doesn’t know where to go from there and is having trouble expounding upon his thoughts. Here are the comparisons that Alex might come up with:

Getting your first job is the first sign of independence.

Spending money from your paycheck is rewarding because it makes you appreciative and teaches you the value of a dollar.

Your first job is your first experience under an authority figure besides your parents.

My parents’ philosophy is that if you work at all, you must work hard.

Starting to work your first job early is beneficial because it makes you experience the real world before beginning college.

As you can see, the “X is Y” approach forced Alex to expand on what earning his first paycheck meant to him and his family. From here, Alex might notice that the encouragement from his family for him to get a job has given rise to many of his positive traits. He may choose to write his thesis on how this accomplishment has helped him become independent, resourceful, and familiar with the way that businesses operate.

Dos and Don’ts


  • Start early. This will make sure the material you hand in is as carefully thought-out as possible.
  • Try different brainstorming techniques. They can all yield different results, and some are more useful in later stages (e.g. The Simile technique is only useful after you have come up with your topic).
  • Try brainstorming responses to different prompts. You might come up with better ideas for a prompt that you were not originally going to choose.


  • Brainstorming can be a very fruitful process. Do not skip it if you are having trouble coming up with an idea.
  • Use the first idea you come up with. We recommend coming up with a variety that you can then choose from. This will allow you to present your best idea, rather than your first idea.
  • Overdo it. If you have spent hours trying to brainstorm and you are not coming up with anything, set it aside and come back to it with a clear head. Do not brainstorm when you are under-rested, hungry or stressed out.

In a Nutshell

We have just shown you a few methods that may help you in coming up with ideas for your essay. Brainstorming is not a crucial component for essay writing, and coming up with ideas comes more naturally to some than to others. The ultimate goal is for you to understand the prompt, come up with a topic, and think of evidence and things to talk about relating to that topic. We hope this helps!


5 Brainstorming Strategies for Writers

By Mark Nichol

Brainstorming is useful whether you have too few ideas, or too many. It can help you whether you don’t know how to organize your thoughts, or whether you don’t even have any thoughts. But before you start, remember the first rule of brainstorming: Enumerate, don’t evaluate. Just get the ideas down, and don’t judge them or organize them until the creative phase has wound down.

1. Cubing

In this strategy, a topic or idea is examined from six distinct viewpoints — hence the name. Describe the topic (what is it?), compare it (what is it like or unlike?), associate it (what does it make you think of?), analyze it (what constituent parts is it made of?), apply it (how can it be used?), and argue for and/or against it (how can you support or oppose it?).

Cubing was developed as a critical-thinking exercise to help students express their thoughts in opinion essays, but it can be adapted for general nonfiction writing, though it is of limited value for fiction.

A similar technique is to explore three perspectives: The first is to describe the topic and its features, its constituent parts, and its challenges, and to compare and contrast it with other topics. The second is to trace the history of the topic and the influences on it throughout that history, and the topic’s evolution. The third is to map the topic to similar contemporary topics as well as to its influences, and to topics that it influences.

2. Freewriting

Write. You don’t know what to write? Then write that. Just write.

Have a quantitative goal: 500 words, three pages, five minutes — it doesn’t matter. Just write.

Do not pause in order to spell correctly or write flawlessly, and don’t go back to rewrite. Turn off your inner editor. Do not strive for coherence. Just write.

Consider closing your eyes while you’re writing or typing, or turn the computer monitor off. Just write.

3. Listing

If your intent is to write an essay or a review or profile, what do you want to communicate? If you wish to craft a story, which ideas and elements do you wish to convey? Jot down a list of phrases or single words you will return to later. For nonfiction, the list can consist of opinions, arguments, facts, questions, or components, or any combination of the above. For fiction, list people, places, and things, values and qualities, goals and obstacles.

Don’t outline at this point. Outlining stalls the creative act of brainstorming by requiring you to evaluate and organize your thoughts. Remember, brainstorming should be an uninhibited activity.

4. Mapping

Mapping, also known as clustering and webbing, is a graphic form of listing that simply involves jotting down ideas on a large writing surface and then making connections by associating similarly themed ideas with color-coded circles or underlines of distinct patterns and then indicating other relationships by linking with lines.

How you produce the map, exactly, is up to you, but as with any other brainstorming tool, wait until you’ve (temporarily) run out of ideas before you begin making connections — but don’t hesitate to continue recording new ideas as you marshal others.

5. Researching

You know the topic you want to write about, or the outline of a novel’s plot, but you don’t know how to populate the piece with ideas? Go to the reference section of a library, or call up reference Web sites. As you read about a current or past event, or a contemporary or historical issue, record the ideas in list or map form. You might find the key point you’ve been looking for, or change the one you had in favor of this new detail.

If you’re planning on writing a novel, learn more about the city or country in which it takes place (even if it’s the one you live in). If it’s a historical novel, read about the social structure and cultural atmosphere of the time and place, and take notes about how people dressed, talked, ate, worked, and engaged in other quotidian activities.

The Next Step

If one of these strategies doesn’t work for you, try another until something clicks. Even if one does work, try more than one.

Then, whichever technique(s) you’ve employed, review your result. Don’t feel that you’ve failed if your work does not yield eloquence or epiphanies, but search for whatever may help you develop your writing assignment or project.

If you feel that an outline is useful, make one after you complete the brainstorming activity. If you don’t, launch into whatever part of the topic attracts your attention based on your brainstorming output. You don’t have to start at the beginning, and you don’t have to complete one part of your assignment or project before you move on to another one. Just build on your background work one piece at a time as it develops.

Recommended for you: « How to Treat Names of Groups and Organizations »

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9 Responses to “5 Brainstorming Strategies for Writers”

  • bob

    I’m working on a novel, in which the story plays out OK. My problem is that I keep switching from narration to dialogue, and then vice versa. I get the impression it’s bitty, and the reader might get confused, after getting involved in the dialogues, to find himself back with the narrator, who isn’t the hero of the novel. any suggestions here?

  • GSGS

    Inspiration is a program that you can use for mindmapping.

  • HP van Duuren

    Thanks for your post Mark,

    Those are intresting approaches, one of the techniques that I also frequently like to use, looks a lot like the Free Writing only although I also don’t worry about organising it while writing, I do write with some sort of guiding ‘Assignment’ in mind. The asignment is simply to write about the thing I want to write about and than just start writing about it.

    For example I want to write a comment about some of the way’s I do my brainstorming, telling people about how I use an Assignment as a Guide for it, like I just wrote about.

  • Raina

    I’ve only used a couple of these tips. I think I will be trying some new ones out, now though. Thanks so much for the ideas!

  • Stephen Thorn

    As an example of listing, I submit “Talk to Me, Fiddle” a song by country music legend Charlie Daniels. It goes through the (possibly fictional) history of his fiddle — how it came to America in the suitcase of a Jewish immigrant fleeing persecution in his homeland and how he played it at his daughter’s wedding, how it was used as a bet in a poker game on a Mississippi riverboat, how it was bought for a dollar by an elderly black man who “taught” the fiddle how to play the Blues, etc. Whether the instrument really went through all those hands isn’t the issue, it’s the history that is the story. By imagining where that fiddle may have been and what has happened around it since it stopped being a tree and started being a violin you create a colorful, deep, human tale. Such a simple technique can be applied to almost any used object (the older, the better) — a rusty can opener, tarnished pocket knife with a chip out of the blade, hand mirror, antique car, etc. — that you could find in any junk shop or museum. This is a rich resource for creating a story when your creativity is at low ebb.

  • Wolf Hoelscher

    Listing works for me best. Especially for copywriting. Thanks for the ideas!

  • George Hall

    I have actually just started using a program called MindGenius which allows me to brainstorm and map. I have been using it to come up with various plot ideas for books, character names and themes etc.

    It is great having everything in front of me and being able to move things around without too much effort. I can also quickly review my ideas so far and strengthen them if something else relating to a specific section pops into my head.

  • W.C. Camp

    Great tips – I think I am going to use that listing technique to change-up the different restaurants I want to eat at!! Seriously good stuff to help especially if a case of writers block drops by! W.C.C.

  • Deborah H

    Husband is a HUGE fan of mind mapping (he’s a beta tester). He uses it for everything, and will help me mind map too, if I ask for help (I am a bit slow with mapping). It’s wonderful to see all your thoughts arrayed before your on a screen.

    I am big on research. Nothing kick starts my imagination like a day in the library, and I have found that most librarians are so pleased and eager to help. They know all this arcane information, and just want to share it. I don’t know how to say this politely: I suck up to the librarians; they are the gate keepers.


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