It’s been a month since you were assigned that term paper, and if we’re being honest with each other, you haven’t given it a moment’s thought since you stuck the assignment guidelines sheet in the back of a notebook and promptly forgot about it. The paper is due next week, and you still have no idea where to begin.
You have the motivation, let’s say you have the time, and now you certainly have the pressure of an impending deadline to push you to your laptop. You open the blank page and stare at the blinking cursor. The issue is, you don’t have a single idea to put into words.
At this point, you could shut your laptop and wait for divine inspiration to strike as you graze for snacks in the kitchen. Or—you could brainstorm.
There are unlimited ways to brainstorm, and every person will come up with their own unique strategy to get ideas flowing. The key is knowing how to turn on the faucet, even when you really don’t want to. Here are a few methods you might not know about that can help sync your creative brain with your willpower to finish that assignment.
1. Divergent Thinking
Screenwriter John Cleese said in a lecture on creativity that original thought happens when your mind is in the “open mode,” a place where natural creativity has a safe space to explore ideas and take a peek outside the box of daily life. In order to achieve this mindset, the brain sometimes needs to be shocked out of patterned ruts of thinking. Here are two ideas that can shake your mind out of creative complacency:
- Rearrange your setting. But don’t just move your desk to the other side of the room. Turn the chairs upside down; imagine they belong that way. Turn a table on its side and ask what it could be used for in this position. Turn your surroundings into a space that confuses your brain and then make sense of it!
- You can also do this with words. Take famous phrases or turns of phrase and play with their word order. Mix them up and decide on a new meaning for the results.
Exercises like this can zap your brain awake with new possibilities and open your mind to the endless roads that lead from the same starting point. For more unusual brainstorming ideas, visit this website.
2. Artistic/Visual Methods
The process of mentally toying with concepts is an integral part of discovering not just workable ideas, but truly original ones. Some people love to play with words at this stage, but others do better with images or visualization. For the artistically inclined, here are a few ways to brainstorm connecting ideas without using words:
- On a large piece of paper or a white board, doodle pictures that are relevant to your topic and then connect the doodles in associations of meaning. This allows your mind to wander as you doodle through productive ideas rather than random thoughts. As you create visual images of your ideas and connect them, a structure or a system of order may emerge for your project.
- You can also draw open-ended pictures where some lines are missing. This is another way to trick your mind into finding less apparent solutions. Images can be combined, linked, or made into entirely new objects through this process of letting your creative mind finish what your logical mind begins.
3. Structured Word Vomit
These next methods are commonly used, and for good reason. They allow you the freedom to be structure-less and theme-less but dedicated enough to make actual progress on the assignment. Ruminating and even (yes!) procrastinating can sometimes be helpful for generating fresh ideas beyond the overused arguments your brain will try to serve you. Adam Grant goes into some of the benefits of ruminating on ideas rather than going with the first ones that occur to you.
For all of the following exercises, set a time limit and let your mind race until the timer beeps.
- Daydream. Put in some earbuds, block out the world, and let your mind wander around the topic. Sometimes, the right music can quiet the daily to-do lists and anxieties that crowd out creative ideas. Here’s one of my go-to YouTube playlists that I made for daydreaming and writing. It has a ton of different moods and tempos to create the ideal mental world that any topic needs to flourish. (And yes, I listened to it while writing this article.) The lack of words and distracting instruments helps me concentrate on the ideas themselves rather than the songs.
Another way to daydream effectively is to get up and move: take a walk, go for a run, or exercise, but do it by yourself and keep your mind engaged with the topic you are brainstorming. I always find myself with a sharper idea if I take some time away from the computer to let my brain roam while my body moves.
At the end of your daydreaming session, furiously write out any ideas or connections you made.
- Free write. This is the process of pouring out all of your thoughts about the project onto a piece of paper. Set a timer and don’t stop writing until the timer beeps, even if all you’ve written are doubts about your project or your ability to do your project. You may find that your mind continues searching for more feelings and connections even after you’ve stopped writing. Hopefully, you’ll have some ideas written in the free write that will guide you to a clearer picture of the unique idea you want to express.
- Mind Map. This technique is a physical representation of your web of unstructured but related topics and ideas. You can do this on paper, a white board, or even on some online tools that have been developed to help brainstormers (GitMind and mindmeister).
To mind map, begin with the central topic in the middle and connect related concepts to the center. Branch out from there with any connections you want to make about your assignment, and you may see patterns, structures, and organization emerge from the chaos of your thoughts.
All three of these methods are excellent for getting to know your topic and figuring out solutions to the complex questions you are trying to answer.
4. New Perspectives
The following brainstorming techniques function as get-to-know-you questions that you can pose to your topic. They create a setting where you can flesh out a theme and angle for your writing project. The structured nature of these ideas is ideal for diving into your topic and figuring out why your readers should pay attention to what you’re going to say.
- Ask your project the six journalism questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How? Write down everything you know about your project in these areas. You should see where your knowledge gaps are, what things you need to research more, and also what type of information pulls your interest. Asking these questions may reveal what about your topic is actually important to you.
- Use the cube method. To do this, write down your answers for the following six approaches to your project, and you will find six different perspectives that will help you to look at it with new eyes:
- Describe it
- Compare it
- Associate it
- Analyze it
- Apply it
- Argue for and against it
Understanding your project in a well-rounded way will help you discover what about it matters to you and how you could approach it from multiple angles. This is especially useful when constructing an argument or trying to form an opinion.
- Try reverse brainstorming when you are burnt out or when the first idea you had just keeps sticking but you know you need something better in its place.
Some of these methods are also described in the Writing Center blog of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This blog has more great ideas for brainstorming and using different perspectives. Check out their videos about Webbing, Color Coding, and Drawing Relationships.
5. With a Friend
Again, John Cleese has some great insight on sparking creativity, and he suggests finding a “playmate” who will toss around ideas with you, be charitable to your good ideas, and learn to weed out your bad ones. For me, even a five-minute conversation with someone I trust to entertain my ideas can mean the difference between an unoriginal pile of regurgitated thought and a product with original content and a compelling theme. Find yourself a friend or a group of friends and try one of these activities.
- Record a brainstorming conversation with a friend. Conversations often yield an array of promising ideas, but it’s often hard to remember all of the insights that are offered. To keep the flow of the conversation while remembering what is said, try recording a brainstorming conversation and listening back later through all of the doors you opened for your writing assignment.
- With multiple people, pose a problem you still need to solve, and have every person write their solution down on a piece of paper. Write all of the ideas on a white board and enjoy the refreshing experience of realizing there is no perfect answer to your roadblocks. However, there are better and worse decisions. Sort through the suggestions, pull several together, and use other people’s perspectives to reimagine unique answers to your paper’s structure, theme, counter-arguments, conclusion, or whatever else you might be struggling with.
Take a look at this link to get more ideas for how to utilize your friends, peers, or coworkers to brainstorm projects with you.
Before You Go
You can cherry-pick any of these techniques for the method that best helps to generate ideas. However, you can also use this list in numbered category order, leading you from an introduction to your topic all the way to a robust knowledge of your writing project. To do this, try the first set of methods to get your brain in gear, move to the artistic suggestions to formulate basic connections between ideas, then go into the verbal brainstorming to flesh out your project. Use the investigative solutions to test your idea from multiple angles, and finally, talk to some friends for fresh solutions to specific problems.
My advice is this: get away from both the blinking cursor and the snacks, mix up your daily thinking patterns, and let your creative brain go to work. There’s a world of original ways to develop any topic, and they are at your fingertips. You can even skip the stage of hitting your head against your desk, hoping a good idea will come to you. After a good brainstorming session, instead of dreading any mention of the paper that’s been hanging over your head for weeks, you may even find that you’re excited to work on it.
“John Cleese on Creativity In Management,” YouTube video, 36:59, posted by Video Arts, June 21, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pb5oIIPO62g.
“Brainstorming.” The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, May 14, 2020. https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/brainstorming/.
Dave, “How to Brainstorm Ideas (10 Amazing Ways).” How to do IELTS, February 3, 2020. https://howtodoielts.com/how-to-brainstorm-ideas-10-amazing-ways/.
Lisa Jo Rudy, 19 Top Brainstorming Techniques to Generate Ideas for Every Situation, EnvatoTuts+, April 23, 2020. https://business.tutsplus.com/articles/top-brainstorming-techniques–cms-27181
“The surprising habits of original thinkers | Adam Grant,” YouTube video, 15:24, posted by TED, April 26, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxbCHn6gE3U&t=3s.