How to Brainstorm Ideas for Writing

Amy Finley
Woman at window writing notes

Brainstorming can be helpful to writers in a variety of ways. It can help you hone your skills, come up with new ideas, organize your ideas, and even make it easier to complete an assignment. Discover some common methods and how to use them.

Mapping or Clustering

You can use a whiteboard and dry erase markers or a simple sheet of paper and pen to brainstorm with this idea. If you have a theme, topic, or assignment, start with that and write it down on the center of the paper or whiteboard. From there, think of as many related ideas as you can. Write each one down and don't stop until you have run out of ideas.

Find the ideas that are the most connected, circle them, and draw lines between them. You can use different colored highlighters or markers to connect groups of ideas if you wish. Now you'll have clusters of subjects or concepts in your given topic that you can write about. Spend five minutes or more generating ideas and then take whatever time you need to connect them. You can also add more ideas to your map as they come to mind.

Listing

Woman writing in a notebook

Listing is a good brainstorming technique to use before creating a hard-and-fast outline. You can use this method whether you are looking for a theme or you already have a set topic to write about. If you have a topic already, you can start listing as many related ideas as you can. If you don't have a subject yet, you can use this technique to start generating ideas.

Spend five to 10 minutes listing ideas as they come to you. Stick to words and phrases rather than complete sentences. Once you have a good list, you can rank them by importance or mark the ones that stand out as essential or helpful for what you want to write about. You can use this to help guide an outline.

Five Senses Chart

A brainstorming technique that can be helpful for creative writing and poetry is creating a sensory chart. Write down your topic and then make a separate column for each of the five senses. Write down words and phrases related to each of the senses in association with your topic, character, or idea. Focus just on the senses and be as descriptive as you can.

Once you have a variety of sensory impressions, you can narrow it down to the phrases and wording that best fits your topic or that you like most to help bring your creative writing to life. Using a chart like this may also help you overcome writer's block because you'll be forcing yourself to look at different aspects.

Cubing

Cubing is a method that works best when you have a specific idea or topic in mind already, and it can also help you explore a topic more deeply or analyze a piece of literature more thoroughly. Educator and author Elizabeth Cowan-Neeld is credited with coming up with this brainstorming technique. To use it, you will need to make six separate sections on a piece of paper or whiteboard, or use six separate sheets of paper.

Your six sections will each approach a different aspect of your topic. Label and use them as follows to brainstorm. You only need to spend a few minutes on each "side" of the cube.

  • Describe: Use terms that appeal to the five senses, that are descriptive in nature, or that are defining characteristics of your subject or idea.

  • Compare and Contrast: Mark down other things that are similar and also things that are in contrast. This helps you gain greater clarity on your subject.

  • Associate: Jot down thoughts, memories, feelings, or other connections you associate with your topic.

  • Analyze: Break down the different parts of your topic. Look at it both as smaller pieces and as a complete idea.

  • Apply: Describe how your concept is used and who it's used by. For tasks like literature analysis, you can look to the author's message or intent, or a lesson or theme given in the story.

  • Argue: You can either argue for or against your given topic. Jot down both pros and cons to help you solidify your ideas and strengthen your concept.

Freewriting

One of the easiest and least structured forms of brainstorming is freewriting. Here, you'll set a timer for a specified time period, such as between five and 15 minutes. During that time, you'll write about anything that comes to mind. You can use this for a pre-defined topic or use it as a warm up activity to help get you into "writing mode." If you use it for a specific topic, mark it at the top of your paper and write down any ideas you get related to it. In this method, you can write full sentences, fragments, or words and phrases.

Get Ready to Write

Don't pay attention to things like grammar and spelling; just use brainstorming to let your creativity flow. Once you're done brainstorming, you can analyze what you've written and decide what is worth keeping or expanding on, or move on to another project with more specific parameters now that you're ready to write.

How to Brainstorm Ideas for Writing