Kristin Hatten, Consultant
Learning to brainstorm is—in my humble opinion—one of the most important aspects of learning to write. This may seem obvious, but I think the further we progress into our writing careers, the more we tend to skip a good, solid brainstorming session. I, for one, am extremely guilty of this—especially since I started graduate school; I get overwhelmed with the project at hand, and, instead of proceeding calmly and strategically, I barrel forward into my paper, despite the fact that I know better. So, here, I want to outline some steps that I plan to walk myself through in order to avoid this “snowball-style” writing style, in hopes that they will be helpful to you as well!
First, freewrite! Freewriting is a great way to start a brainstorming session because you can do it however you want! Freewriting may consist of a rough outline, a chart, boxes with arrows pointing from one piece of information to another, or a typed or written page(s) of stream of consciousness commentary. Whatever it may be, it will only be helpful in getting you started on your paper.
Second, now that you have completed the freewriting stage, remove yourself a bit from the actual content of the project, and focus on the research methods that will be necessary. Here, list out some keywords you think may be useful to you during your process, and list any of the sources you may have already acquired. Also, poke around on the library’s online catalogue and make a list of possible sources from there. This will surely help you further organize your thoughts as well as help you flesh our your ideas. (Sometimes, depending on how deep you are into your project, this may be useful as step one!)
If you have trouble getting started with freewriting, try to talk out your ideas to a peer, a friend, a University Writing Center consultant (!!), or a professor. In some of the most effective brainstorming sessions I have had with clients, about 75% of the brainstorming session has consisted of the client talking through his/her ideas and me taking notes. In these instances, the client oftentimes realizes that his/her ideas were more organized and succinct than originally thought. So find a buddy and talk it out, y’all! It’ll help, I swear.
Finally, understand that brainstorming does not only happen before you write a paper. Allow yourself to brainstorm throughout your writing and research process. So, what does this look like? When you are reading and analyzing your research materials, respond directly to each source (right after you finish reading each) using your most effective freewriting method. Once you move into integrating these source materials and responses into your paper, it is to be expected that you may get stuck or need to re-organize your papers. These moments serve as yet another place where freewriting or reading and responding can come in handy.
In short, don’t panic! Sit down, get a cup of coffee, and write down what you know so you can figure out what you don’t know. Oh! And don’t forget, carry your brainstorming methods throughout the entire paper!