W: Brainstorming


Brainstorming is whatever a writer does to generate key ideas, terms, and connections. Although brainstorming is a part of pre-drafting, it doesn’t have to happen first. Many writers brainstorm during outlining, drafting, and revising. Some writers research before they brainstorm. Regardless of when brainstorming happens, all writers need to generate ideas at some point in the writing process. If you need more ideas, try the strategies outlined on this page.

Whichever strategy you choose, be sure to save your pre-drafting work. You might want to revisit this stage again if you run out of ideas or want to make sure you captured all your ideas in your draft.

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Freewriting strategy

Freewriting is the process of writing down any and all ideas about a topic that pop into your mind. Set a timer for yourself and write continuously for 5 or 10 minutes on your topic. If you run out of ideas, recite song lyrics or rewrite the last word or phrase on the page until another idea jumps into your thoughts. Keep writing, even if it doesn’t make sense! At this point, you’re just getting your ideas down on paper without editing or judging them.

Freewriting can even help you decide on a topic. Write down all your topics and try freewriting with each one. Whichever topic is easiest to freewrite about is probably the topic you should choose.

Explore an example of freewriting created for the following research question: What is the impact of traditional ecological knowledge on environmental management?  

Fire control, fire prevention, look at two different environments, contrasting ecosystems and the role of fire and impacts on humans. Dene in Alberta—what’s the role of fire in their environment? How does this contrast or compare with an African tribe? Didn’t I read about Kissi Tribe and colonization affecting their environment? French outlawed their land management practices? What is the landscape there? Savannah is much different than the Boreal forests of Canada and might be a good comparison. Look at the European view and how it affected both communities with their policies—interfere with or support the traditional use of fire in these communities. Europeans didn’t appreciate the knowledge or those communities.

Mind-mapping strategy

Mind-mapping combines words with simple visuals to help writers form connections between ideas. One writer might draw or find an empty mind map and fill it in with their ideas. Another writer might do the opposite—generate ideas and then organize them visually using categories, arrows, or colour-coding. Another writer might write subtopics on sticky notes, post them on a wall, and move them around. Here are some online tools that can help with mind mapping:

  • Inspiration Software, where you can use a free trial of their software for thirty days.
  • XMind, a free mind-mapping tool that runs on both Mac and PC computers.
  • Mindomo, which is a collaborative mind-mapping tool. You can use the basic tool for free or pay a minimal fee for extra features.

Explore this example of a mind-map created for the following research question: What is the impact of traditional ecological knowledge on environmental management?  

Example of mind map. Sticky notes with words joined by arrows.

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? strategy

This strategy can be helpful with informative or expository writing. You may want to use Who? What? Where? Why? and How? as subheadings in a Word document or a piece of paper folded in six. You might research until you can answer these questions and then freewrite.

Explore the answers created for the following topic: What is the impact of traditional ecological knowledge on environmental management? 

Who? The Dene and Kissi tribes from two different ecosystems were impacted by European colonizers and their fire management policies.

What? Consider the impact of fire on the peoples in both environments.

Where? Canadian policies and historical data compared to African policies and historical data.

When? As far back as the last ice age, there is evidence of how fire has impacted the land. I will focus on the impact of colonization and the policies that affected the land management practices of the indigenous peoples. I will also consider the current implications of controlling and preventing fires.

Why? This information is important because the knowledge from the indigenous peoples and their traditional practices provides important insights into how to improve current fire practices.

How? Look at historical and current records, such as Lewis, Wuerthner, Fairhead and Leach…

Sketching strategy

A picture is worth a thousand words. So, if you’re a visual learner and like to sketch out your thoughts, grab a pen and paper and draw what you’re thinking. This strategy is especially effective if you’re trying to conceptualize an idea or clarify relationships between parts of an idea.

Sketching involves drawing out your ideas in whatever way makes sense to you. You might create a Venn diagram—a strategy that uses two (or more) overlapping circles to show relationships between sets of ideas, which can be useful for comparison and contrast type papers. The information written where two circles overlap is common to both ideas. The information written outside of the overlapping area is information distinct to only one of the ideas.

Explore the sketch of a Venn diagram created for the following research question: What is the impact of traditional ecological knowledge on environmental management?  

Your sketching doesn’t have to be pretty or tidy. You’re the one you’re sketching for, so make it as ugly/messy as you want.  

Sketch of a venn diagram-style brainstorming strategy

Discussion strategy

Discussion is an intuitive idea-generating tool. Either explain or pretend you’re explaining your topic to somebody. Choose a person you feel comfortable talking to, not someone who makes you nervous. You might discuss with people on an online forum or with a friend, family member, or classmate. If your institution has a writing or learning support centre, they can likely engage in discussion with you.

You might also listen to a podcast or watch a video on your subject, pausing to write down your own ideas as they come up, as if you’re part of the conversation. However, unless your assignment allows informal sources, your paper shouldn’t include information you heard on a podcast/video unless you can verify that information with a formal or peer-reviewed source. Podcasts/videos might also reference formal sources you can use for your paper; check for show notes or a references list.


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