Brainstorming is when you deliberately try to think up new ideas or solutions to problems. In writing—whether creative, academic, or business—it’s a beneficial preliminary stage that helps writers know precisely what’s going into their projects.
Ideas are the most valuable resource in any communication, which makes brainstorming for writing a crucial part of the process. But for people who mostly wait around for ideas to find them, brainstorming can be quite difficult or even frustrating.
To facilitate the process and make brainstorming bear more fruit, we explain the most effective techniques below. But first, let’s start with the direct benefits of brainstorming, and why you should resist the urge to skip it.
How brainstorming can improve your writing
We recommend brainstorming to be your first step in the entire writing process. Why? Because knowing what content you want to include right from the start makes all the subsequent steps much, much easier.
The alternative is “winging it,” and coming up with ideas as you write. That can work just fine for some people . . . but for most, it does not. Taking a proactive approach to generating ideas tends to not only produce more ideas, but also inspire better quality ones. Not to mention, in a dedicated brainstorming session you have more control over when these ideas appear, instead of waiting around.
Think of brainstorming for writing as compartmentalization. You set aside time exclusively for editing and outlining, so why not set aside time just for ideas? It’s easier to come up with ideas in bulk when your mind is already in a brainstorming mindset.
Individual vs. group brainstorming
While brainstorming is often thought of as a group activity, for projects with a single author you can also do it individually (for example, if you’re brainstorming a personal essay based on your own experiences). Brainstorming on your own follows the same procedure and best practices listed below, so don’t think you need other people to do it.
There are some benefits to brainstorming as a group, though—namely, new perspectives and angles. Even if you’re the sole author, as with most school assignments, you can always call on some friends to help you think up ideas for your “blind spots.”
If you’re planning on a group brainstorming session, be careful of how you frame it. Try to emphasize creativity and free-thinking and instruct your group to avoid naysaying (although, scrutiny can be useful later when deciding which ideas to keep and which to scrap). Don’t rule out anyone whom you may not see as “creative”—people who don’t seem outwardly innovative or imaginative can always surprise you with the exact idea you’re missing.
How to brainstorm in 6 steps
If you’re new to brainstorming, here’s a quick six-step method you can follow to get the best results.
An environment conducive to creative thinking is key. First and foremost, you need to set aside time for yourself or schedule a session with your group. Take brainstorming seriously by making it an appointment, and allot enough time that you’re not distracted by other plans.
Next, you need the right area. Choose someplace relaxing where you can concentrate. Remove all distractions and consider a “no internet” rule until after the session. If you want, you can heighten the mood with some music, incense, or low lighting—whatever helps you think. Everyone has different opinions about what’s relaxing, so go with what makes you comfortable.
Last, you’ll need something to write on for collecting your notes. Again, choose whatever makes you the most comfortable: computer, phone, paper, etc. If you’re doing a group brainstorming session, try a whiteboard so everyone can see.
2 Capture the main focal points
When it’s time for your actual brainstorming session, first write down your main focal points. For example, if you’re brainstorming an essay about irony in writing, you’d write down the word “irony” in the center or at the top of the document. This acts as a visual anchor to focus your thoughts and snap you back if you get distracted.
For more complicated projects, also write down any subtopics or secondary categories. If you’re brainstorming to flesh out a character, for example, you might want to use separate sections for different aspects of their personality, like “fears” or “motives.”
Don’t know what the main focal points are? There’s your first brainstorming objective! It can be as simple as writing “main topic” on a piece of paper and jotting down any and all ideas you have. It also helps to think ahead to writing a first draft and to try to foresee what ideas you want to put in.
Brainstorming works best when there’s a clear direction. The more you know what you’re looking for, the easier it is to find it. Writing these areas down as headers or category titles is a smart way to stay on top of what it is you’re brainstorming in the first place.
3 Write down all your initial ideas
In other words, write down the easy ideas: all the ideas you’ve had coming into the brainstorming session, as well as all the low-hanging fruit, even if it seems too obvious to put down.
For one thing, it helps to have all these ideas in one place to help you organize your thoughts and see what’s missing. Moreover, writing down your ideas has fascinating neurological effects, including increased attention. Think of it as clearing your head to “make room” for new ideas to move in.
And remember, there are no bad ideas! Brainstorming is about quantity, not quality, so write down everything you can think of. Later you can go through and trim the fat, but at this stage, the more the merrier.
4 Look for patterns
Once you have a sizable list of basic starter ideas, it’s time for analysis. Look for patterns in the ideas you like most, as well as the ones you like least. Maybe you have too many ideas in one category but not enough in another—you could choose to abandon the weaker category and break the bigger one into two.
You can use any patterns or connections going forward to shape your new ideas around what works and steer away from what doesn’t. If you’re in a group, this could be a good opportunity to discuss what you have so far.
5 List the “holes” or unaddressed objectives
What’s missing? What ideas do you still need? When your brainstorming session comes to a lull, it’s a good time to take stock of what you have—and don’t have.
Once the “easier” ideas are out of the way, you can refocus on the more problematic ones. But instead of diving right in, it’s best to list out all the missing areas first. For example, if you’re plotting a novel, make a list of all your undefined plot points. Use this as a checklist and go through one by one until you have ideas for each.
6 Generate new ideas for the missing parts
Finally, it’s time to fill in all the gaps you discovered in the previous step. This is often the hardest part of brainstorming writing, but also part of why it’s so useful: It’s better to address these difficulties at the start than deal with them later. If you’re stuck, here’s some brainstorming techniques to jump-start your creativity:
- Word association: Word association is when you see a word and write down the first new word that comes to mind. For example, “fire” might make you think of “hot,” “hot” conjures up “summer,” and “summer” reminds you of “beach.” Although robotic, this exercise can help you find new thematic relationships you hadn’t seen before, or simply occupy your mind while more ideas brew in your subconscious.
- Ask questions: “Why is this character angry?” “What’s my strongest supporting evidence?” “Where’s the emotion in this topic?” Good writing is often about asking yourself the right questions, so let your curiosity off the leash and see what answers you come up with. Questions also have positive effects on the brain, all of which are helpful for brainstorming.
- “What if . . .”: As an extension of asking questions, pose different “What if . . .” scenarios and see what you come up with. In creative writing it might be something like, “what if this character was older,” or, for brainstorming an essay, “what if I introduced my opponent’s arguments before mine?”
It’s easy to get burnt out when brainstorming, but rather than “push through,” it’s more effective to rest and try again later. Given the nature of brainstorming, you’ll have better results when you’re thinking clearly. Feel free to call it a day and reconvene later to finish—it helps to sleep on it and come back refreshed.
How to organize ideas after a brainstorming session
Once you’ve gotten enough ideas to map out your writing, that’s it for brainstorming! It’s time to move on to the more straightforward phases of the process.
The next step is outlining, where you take your brainstormed ideas and organize them in the order you want. Here you’ll really appreciate all your hard work in the brainstorming phase—imagine writing an outline with no ideas or, harder yet, writing a rough draft without any!