You can brainstorm before you freewrite or after. I tend to brainstorm after, hence the order of these posts. When you brainstorm after you freewrite, you can start your brainstorming session with some of the words or phrases that struck you as particularly useful in your freewriting.
Wherever you place it in relation to freewriting, brainstorming at the beginning of a project is helpful whether you have too much information or too little. As you put ideas on paper (or on the screen), you’ll be able to evaluate how much you know and identify what you still need to learn. Brainstorming is also excellent for getting the creative juices flowing.
Like freewriting, brainstorming needs to happen in a judgement free zone. It also needs to happen quickly – you don’t want to get stuck in the ‘brainstorming phase’ of your project for days or weeks.
Unlike freewriting, brainstorming can take a variety of forms, have a look at the forms I’ve listed below and choose the one that appeals to you today. If that doesn’t work, keep trying different ones until you find one that does.
1. The List
This method really is as simple as it sounds. Open a new document or take out a blank sheet of paper and list topics, subtopics, or groups of words. List things like steps in a process, aspects of a problem, or attributes of what you’re writing about. Once you have several items listed, identify topics that seem to fit together and look for patterns.
Think back to English class when you learned about figures of speech. You probably remember similes – they’re comparisons using like or as.
To use similes in brainstorming fill in the blanks in one or both of these sentences with as many answers as possible:
[Your topic] is like ___________.
[Your topic] is as ______ as __________.
Example: Writing a book is like planning and cooking Christmas dinner.
Once you have several similes to choose from, highlight the one that seems like the best fit for now. Then use listing (see the above) to brainstorm the second term. For planning and cooking Christmas dinner this would include things like making the guest list, choosing a main course, setting the table and so on. Now I would spend some time thinking about how the process of planning and cooking Christmas dinner is like the process of writing a book.
This method works because it makes you think about your topic in a new way. In making comparisons between different ideas, you are thinking more creatively about your primary topic. This is important because creativity is necessary for writing, whether you’re writing a novel or an instruction manual.
3. Think Like a Journalist
Whether you’ve studied journalism or not, you likely know that most news stories need to answer the following six questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. When you’re brainstorming you can use these questions to generate a lot of ideas about your topic. Spend five minutes generating your own questions (like the ones I’ve listed below), and then spend a little time answering each one. Not all questions are created equal – spend your time and energy on the ones that quickly strike you as useful.
- is your audience?
- is your book about?
- are you, the author?
- problem does your book solve for your audience?
- does your reader need to know about your topic?
- does your book add to the existing body of knowledge on your topic?
- in your reader’s life is your book helpful?
- did you come up with your idea for the book?
- did your topic become important to you? To others?
- is your audience in their journey (as it relates to your topic)?
- were you in your journey when you had a breakthrough?
- are you trying to help your audience to go?
- do you need to write this book?
- does your audience need to read it?
- is your topic important right now?
- will your book help your audience?
- add to our understanding of your topic?
- does your book fit into your larger body of work?
4. Word Maps
Word maps are easier to produce on paper than on screen – you do not want to get bogged down trying to insert shapes and text into a document. These maps can take multiple forms. You can draw word clouds on a piece of paper or dry erase board:
This is probably the form you’re most familiar with. You can put your main topic in the centre and then draw lines out from the centre to the next level topic and form new webs around second tier terms if needed. You can use these maps to process the kinds of lists you produce using the first method (above), or you can use them to generate ideas from scratch. Also, don’t be afraid to use colour for different kinds of topics. For those of you who are visual learners, colour coding your word map will make it easier for you to get your creative juices flowing.
If you want to be able to quickly change the relationships between terms, write words on sticky notes and then move them around on a table or wall. If you have access to sticky notes of varying sizes, shapes, or colours, use them!
Whichever method you choose, have fun with your brainstorming. The purpose of such pre-writing activities is to get you thinking creatively about your topic. I’d love to hear more about how you like to brainstorm! Join my Facebook group and let us know: EWC Writers’ Group.