Brainstorming for Beginners

Written by on June 9, 2014 in Academic Publishing - Leave a Comment

It’s summertime again, and for me that means teaching an accelerated research writing course. I’ve been teaching research and writing skills to undergrads for several years now, and in my work as a dissertation editor, it always strikes me how many of my clients suffer from the same issues as my students. Many difficulties tend to arise in the invention stage of writing, and if they aren’t resolved, they can spell disaster for the entire project.

Contrary to what you might believe, brainstorming occurs at all stages of the writing process. Writing projects tend to evolve over time, and with that evolution comes the need for new ideas. Whether you’ve just begun working on your thesis or are in the process of making final edits, these three brainstorming strategies are tried and true—and you don’t need to be a pro for them to be effective.


You might remember this exercise from your high school creative writing class. It may seem a bit silly, but I’ve seen it work wonders in the classroom. Here’s what you need to do:

First, set a timer. If this is your first time freewriting, I suggest you try starting with five minutes. As you get used to the exercise, you can increase your time limit. Once your timer starts, you must write continuously, whether that means keeping your fingers moving on the keyboard nonstop or keeping your pencil to the paper for the duration. No editing, no backspacing, no erasing—just writing.

The idea is to get as many of your thoughts down as you can. You can focus on a particular problem, or you can write whatever comes to mind. Then, after your time is up, go back over your writing and try to pick out the ideas that seem promising and begin the cycle again until you’ve got something worth polishing.

Ask Questions

If you’re having trouble developing an idea, you can always go back to the basics. Adapted from Aristotle, these five questions force you to articulate the basic parameters of your subject or idea:

  • What is it?
  • What causes it?
  • What is it like or unlike?
  • What larger system is it a part of?
  • What do others say about it?

This exercise is especially useful if you have a general idea of what you want to say but aren’t sure where it fits into your larger project, or if you are in the initial stages of planning a writing project.


Great for people who prefer visual learning strategies, this is one of my personal favorites. The clustering exercise asks you to diagram your ideas. First, write down your main idea and circle it in a bubble. Then, surround your main bubble with the supporting ideas that you will need to address. Each of those bubbles will probably have one or two of their own bubbles branching off. The end result should look something like this.

Clustering helps you determine which ideas need more development and which directions are most promising. The more bubbles you create, the more you have to say about your topic. Ultimately, clustering is a great lead-in to outlining. Once you’ve identified the main focus of your writing project, you can turn your cluster diagram into a linear breakdown of your project’s organizational structure

The brainstorming process is also a great time to seek out the help of a writing coach or editor. A good dissertation editor will be able to guide you in the right direction at times when you’re feeling lost in the labyrinth of academic writing. Above all, she will be there to give you constructive feedback, something every writer needs to be successful.

Leave a Comment