Monday, October 11, 2010

Getting Unstuck with Brainstorming

When you’re stuck for ideas in your writing, brainstorming is one of the best ways to get unstuck. There are a number of brainstorming techniques, but a few of the most popular ones include listing, free writing, what ifs, and webbing (aka spidering, mind mapping, ballooning, clustering).  No matter what technique you use, one of the most important things to remember when brainstorming is that there are no dumb ideas. When you brainstorm, you turn off your internal editor and write every idea that comes to you to allow your creative juices to flow freely.

Listing is perhaps the easiest brainstorming technique. As the name suggests, you simply make a list of every idea that comes to you. Listing can be particularly helpful if you have a general topic or idea of what you want to write about, but you need to get a little more specific. For example, you might want to write a story about dogs, so as fast as you can you start listing everything you know about dogs. Your list might start off something like this; bark, fleas, collar, drool, fetch, roll-over, food dish, snoopy, leash, Frisbee, and the list goes on.

Free writing is another great way to get the creative juices flowing. Sometimes we stare at a blank screen for so long, we condition ourselves to think we’ll never come up with a good idea. Free writing is a way to shove aside that negative thinking, by simply writing whatever comes to our mind. It can be words, whole sentences, paragraphs—whatever comes to our mind, we just type it, no matter how nonsensical or unrelated the thoughts are. Once again, you turn off your internal editor and let your imagination go free.

“What ifs” is a good technique to use in conjunction with listing and free writing. You can take some of the more interesting things from your list, and ask what if questions about those items, and free writing your thoughts or answers. For example, you could free write answers to the question what if dogs couldn’t bark?

Webbing or spidering is my favorite type of brainstorming, especially when it comes to creating and developing plots. Like the other techniques, with webbing you write down whatever ideas come to you, but you make visual connections between your different ideas. For example, to web a story idea about dogs that can’t bark, you write “dogs can’t bark” in the center of your paper and as you come up with your “what if” ideas, you write them down and connect a line between it and main your idea. If one of your new ideas sparks another idea, you draw a connecting line between those ideas, and you just keep writing and connecting ideas until you have what looks like a spider web of ideas or something like my picture at the top.

I like to use a whiteboard for my web brainstorm sessions, but the problem with whiteboards is that they aren’t permanent. But here are two easy ways to solve that. The first is to take a picture of your web. The second, which is my preferred method, is to enter your results into a webbing program like FreeMind, (a free mind mapping program). Or if you prefer, you can skip the whiteboard and just begin with the webbing or mind mapping software . My preference is to use a pen and whiteboard first. For some reason, my creative side seems to like the feel of a pen in my hand.

What are your favorite brainstorming techniques or tools?


  1. You've got some great ideas. I like using the what if technique. Combining it with listing sounds even better, I will have to give it a try. Congratulations on your books getting published!

  2. Hi Ken
    Good post. I mostly use freewrites, lists and Internet noodling, with a focus on researching my topic. (That's how I found your blog!) I'm following your blog now--wanna follow mine? Anyone welcome to!