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Some students subscribe to the "Kubla Kahn" school of thought to get ideas for their essays: as Coleridge created his famous poem fragment, they wait to be struck by a vision in their sleep. Most of us mere mortal writers realize that although some assignments inspire a good topic or direction right away, others require some nudging or downright hairpulling to come up with an angle that works. Following are some of the brainstorming exercises writers frequently use to discover and develop their thoughts on a topic. The one thing they all have in common is that they help you overcome writer's block by putting at least some of your thoughts into written words.
Freewriting means you write nonstop for five minutes everything that comes to mind about your topic (or off of it). Freewriting works best when you follow strict rules: set a timer to write for the full five minutes, no less, and don't take your pen from the paper or your fingers from the keyboard. If you pause in your thoughts, just keep writing "I don't know what to write next" until another idea pops up. Record every idea, no matter how silly or irrelevant, including wild claims and random associations. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, or neatness -- just write. When time's up, reread your freewrite for possible seeds of ideas for your essay. Sometimes what you find are details that together point to a larger topic.
Do you make lists to remember to do things? The advantage of listing is that you can do it just about anywhere anytime on a scrap of paper. You can make a list of ideas that occur to you about an assignment just as you would make a grocery list. Jot down every possible topic that might come under the umbrella of the assignment. Try for at least 8 possible topics/directions. Don't censor any idea as not good enough; simply put it down because it may prompt another idea. Reviewing your initial list may reveal some items that catch your attention more than others. To narrow your topic, you may want to make a second list focusing on only one of those points in your first list.
Clustering is similar to listing, but less vertical and more organic. Artists may include doodles and sketches with their word clusters. Start by writing one word or phrase that represents your general topic in the middle of a blank page. Draw a circle around it. Now all around that word write related words that you associate with it. The association or relevance doesn't have to be clear to anyone but yourself. Now circle each of those words and treat each one in turn as the central term, writing all the words/ideas you associate with it in more bubbles. Do the same clustering exercise with each of those terms or phrases. Usually, your best essay ideas occur in the third or fourth cluster ring out from the center of the page, or you find yourself wanting to branch more and more in one direction, but less interested in clustering around some of the other peripheral topics. After you step back, you might see that you have discovered not only a focused central topic but also the initial ideas for subtopics that might support or develop your main thesis.
Imagine a cube with six sides like a game die. Each side represents a different angle from which you can view your topic. Looking at your topic from several perspectives may give you an overall way to organize your essay or several ways to develop a topic when you've exhausted everything else you could think of. These six questions represent ways writers often get curious about a subject. If you're not sure where to start, toss a die and begin writing on that question. Try to write at least a little on each question, and then see which question(s) generate the most energetic writing:
Every good newspaper article begins with a strong opening sentence that catches your attention and answers these five basic questions: Who, What, Where, When, Why? You can apply these same questions to your subject to find a feasible thesis question worth arguing or researching. Try writing answers to some of the following to get yourself started, and then see what details emerge that you would want to include in your essay:
If you're having an especially hard time getting the first words written, sometimes it helps to talk aloud with a friend or writing consultant about your ideas. Ask your partner to listen and ask questions back about things that sound confusing or that seem interesting. After the conversation, have both of you jot down what you remember as the key points you talked about. Compare notes to find a topic that engages both of you. If your subject draws in at least one other person, you have probably found something worth writing about.
How do you know when you've found a good topic? You feel at least some personal connection to and intellectual excitement or curiosity about the ideas you're exploring; if you don't care about the topic, neither will your reader.
Although sleep and piddly chores rarely provide the initial spark you need to get started, they can be invaluable for providing a helpful period of incubation. Once you've jotted down some initial thoughts and ideas, perhaps even a rough thesis statement, take a break to get some distance from your work before you plunge into developing the first draft.
Asking the Journalists' Questions
"It's a matter of piling a little piece here, and a little piece there, fitting them together, going on to the next part, then going back and gradually shaping the whole piece into something . . . . You don't rely on inspiration – I don't anyway, and I don't think most writers do." ~Dave Barry
"The mere process of writing is one of the most powerful tools we have for clarifying our own thinking. I am never as clear about any matter as when I have just finished writing about it." ~James Van Allen
"Often I write by not writing. I assign a task to my subconscious, then take a nap or go for a walk, do errands, and let my mind work on the problem." ~Donald Murray