I want to introduce you to some strategies you can use to better understand and relate to material you’re reading about. These strategies can also be used to generate potential ideas for papers, but keep these two purposes separate. Start by using them to “discover” what you think and feel about what you’re learning without thinking about papers.
You may have learned about some of these strategies in high school and/or First-Year Writing, though perhaps under a different name (invention, pre-writing, fast writing) or for different purposes. Research shows that these informal “writing to discover” activities can unlock parts of your brain that aren’t accessed by class discussion or by more formal writing, so they are particularly common in writing classes, but our hope is that you’ll find the strategies useful to aid your learning in other classes as well.
I break discovery strategies down into several types, each of which involves a different type of brainstorming. These activities work best when you spend about five to ten minutes engaged in rapid thinking and writing without worrying about whether your writing is readable or even makes sense. The goal is to let the ideas flow freely out of your mind and onto the page. The results might be messy, but that’s just fine; the writing is for your benefit, no one else’s.
If you have access to a timer, set it for at least five minutes before you try each activity so you don’t have to think about looking at the clock. If five minutes pass and you’re still writing, keep going. If you run out of steam before five minutes, push yourself by repeating what you just wrote or asking questions or doing something in writing that might open the mental gates again, which is precisely what these activities are good at doing.
Here are the types of discovery strategies we’ll practice for different purposes. This is a general overview. Instructions for specific activities will appear on calendar entries.
Listing: In response to a prompt start listing ideas as they come to you without stopping to ask whether the ideas are good. Stay focused on listing until time is up. Then look over the list, pick something interesting as a new prompt, and start listing about that. Or try a different strategy with the new idea.
Cluster Mapping: Put a word or phrase in a circle in the middle of a blank piece of paper and begin brainstorming ideas in response to the idea by using circles that branch off the center. Use the first outer layer of circles for major ideas that come to you and then branch off of those for smaller ideas. This method is sometimes also called webbing because what you make branches out like a web rather than being linear like a list.
General Freewriting: In response to a prompt you’re given or your own interests, start writing non-stop for a set period to see where your “writing brain” takes you. Ideally you wouldn’t look at the page or screen while typing or glance only briefly to make sure you’re typing on the right keys. After a set period, stop, read over what you’re written, identify something promising, and start a new freewriting session using that as the prompt.
Focused Freewriting: Sometimes it’s useful to use the method of freewriting for specific purposes. Here are some examples:
- Empathize: put yourself in a situation and explore your response
- Inquire: start by asking “why” and keep asking it of each new insight
- Explore: what’s really going on here? what’s the central issue?
- Reflect: how does this relate to me personally, to my own experience?
Analysis Methods: These methods include definition, cause/effect, comparison and contrast, and process. Using one of these methods along with any of the above activities can help you see an issue from multiple sides and uncover new aspects of it. You might take a topic and brainstorm a definition, then cluster map on what causes and effects are related to it, then freewrite about similarities and differences to other related issues, and so on.
Journalist Questions: The questions journalists ask to get at the heart of a story include who, what, when, where, and how. Like the analysis methods, you can apply these questions to a topic to see what comes up. If the topic doesn’t have answers to one of the questions, move on to the next and keep brainstorming to see what you discover.
Here are a few strategies for using brainstorming to get going on a draft rather than trying to “compose” a nearly finished product from the beginning.
Fast Writing: Start with the prompt from your assignment and begin writing as quickly as possible to see what comes up as a potential direction for a draft. This is similar to freewriting but with the more specific purpose of finding a focus or thesis for a paper. You might also find it helpful to try listing or cluster mapping in response to the assignment.
Sketch Drafting: Once you have a thesis in mind, use fast writing to start sketching out your ideas in response. Work towards a general impression or “pencil sketch” of a draft that you’re willing to erase and start over with however many times it takes. The goal is to work quickly so that you don’t get bogged down in trying to get a sentence just right. If you get stuck, make a note to yourself of what you want to put there later and keep going. Move back and forth through different parts of your sketch as new ideas emerge.
Outlining: Although most of us are taught how to outline, outlining doesn’t work for every writer or for every assignment. It’s too easy to get lulled into trying to create the perfect outline rather than actually writing the paper, so I recommend that you use this strategy with caution and in the spirit of brainstorming and fast writing rather than anything formal.