Brainstorming Basics

Updated: Oct 24, 2018

How to overcome writer’s block and generate ideas

Every writer has been in a situation where they feel blocked, like they aren’t generating good ideas or don’t know where to go next with their narrative. Whether beginning a completely new project or stuck in the middle of an existing one, brainstorming techniques can help get the creative juices flowing and uncover unique ways to further a story. A lot of writers even employ some of the tried-and-true brainstorming techniques without even realizing it.


Those looking for a fresh perspective on a old idea or those wanting to start something from scratch can both benefit from brainstorming. Understanding how and why brainstorming works can also make brainstorming more effective. While there are a variety of different techniques available, some writers might prefer one method over another. In other cases, trying a new method of brainstorming might help generate different ideas and can be a great resource for tackling writer’s block. Even non-fiction writers can benefit from a good brainstorm from time-to-time, using brainstorming as a way to narrow down research topics or discover what topics one is really interested in. Whatever the case, brainstorming is an important tool to utilize.


What is brainstorming?


A lot of us think we have a basic understanding of what brainstorming is, but brainstorming is something that can be different depending on what setting it is being used for. Brainstorming is used by corporations to design products and promotions, by researchers and think thanks to find new approaches to problems, and by numerous others to generate ideas. Over the years, brainstorming has become somewhat of a corporate buzzword, but the idea of generating ideas is still a valuable one.

Thaw being escorted from the court room

While brainstorming has long been done by writers, thinkers, inventors, and others, the term didn’t come into vogue in its current meeting until the 1950s. The first use of brainstorm was in reference to the insanity defense tried by Harry Kendall Thaw in his famed murder trial of Stanford white in the early 1900s. It was alleged that storm in Thaw’s brain was what created the “temporary insanity” that led to Thaw murdering the man who once had an affair with Thaw’s wife. The reason brainstorming went from a term synonymous with the rise of the temporary insanity plea to one employed by businesses and think tanks trying to generate new ideas all has to do with one of the original Mad Men.


The first real published approach to brainstorming as an effective strategy was laid out by Madison Avenue advertising executive Alex Osborn in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. Osborn had been developing brainstorming techniques for businesses since 1939. While a lot of what Osborn advocated was “group brainstorming” or the working together of a group to come up with better ideas, most writers probably engage in “individual brainstorming.” In fact, studies have shown that individual brainstorming often comes up with better ideas than group brainstorming. One of the reasons for this is that it is easier for individuals to stick to the rules of a brainstorming exercise and not get distracted.

One of Osborn's brainstorming meetings

One of the reasons for this is that it is easier for individuals to stick to the rules of a brainstorming exercise and not get distracted. Osborn also found that group brainstorming often brought up a fear in his employees that their ideas would be laughed at or mocked by their fellow employees. As a result, he set down the guideline that no brainstorming idea should be regarded as silly or idiotic, trying to make a more welcoming atmosphere. The concept of brainstorming worked well for Osborn, who retired as an ad executive after 40 years on the job. Other guidelines are important for those brainstorming, both in groups and as individuals.


Brainstorming Dos and Don'ts


Before starting to brainstorm, there are some guidelines that needed to be followed to ensure the success of the brainstorming session. These ground rules can make brainstorming more effective overall. While brainstorming is something that is done to encourage the free flow of thoughts and ideas, there are some parameters that should be put in place to ensure that the session both stays on topic and accomplishes its goals.

Do: Set up a work space

Just like having a good space to get writing done is important, having a space to think and come up with ideas is vital. Before beginning a brainstorming session, set up a space with all of the materials and equipment needed to aid in the thought process. For some people, this is as simple as a journal and a writing utensil. Others prefer to do their brainstorming on large tabletop easel pads or white boards. Some find thoughts flow better when they type or write. Make sure whatever material needed to facilitate the process is prepared ahead of time. Setting up a space can also call for setting up the proper atmosphere for brainstorming. While some prefer quiet, others might prefer background noise or music while they think.


Don't: Start with a completely blank slate

Brainstorming can be easier if there is a certain topic or group of topics being approached rather than trying to come up with something entirely new. Writers might want to start brainstorming centered around a single character or group of characters, settings they want to explore, or ways they can move their plot forward. A new brainstorming session for different aspects of the story can get creative juices flowing but can also make sure that distractions and new ideas about different aspects of the story don’t distract from the main goal. While brainstorming is about freely flowing ideas, sometimes it is best to restrict the topic to something more manageable. Attempting to brainstorming everything all at once can get overwhelming and might make the task more daunting than if different aspects are broken down into smaller, more manageable chunks for analysis.

Do: Set a time limit

When setting up your workspace for brainstorming, a timer might be a useful tool to include. Timing a brainstorming session can be helpful by not only creating a deadline but also making sure that the session doesn’t go on and on long after all of the creative ideas have been sucked dry. Many different methods of brainstorming also encourage the use of timers to keep the ideas flowing and to help jump from topic to topic. Depending on what type of brainstorming is being done, setting a timer anywhere from five to ten to 20 minutes can be helpful.


Don't: Worry about quality

Most of the time, the phrase “quality over quantity” is applied when talking about making anything from an idea to a product. This isn’t the case in brainstorming. The goal of brainstorming isn’t always to come up with the best ideas but rather come up with as many ideas as possible. The best ideas can be picked out later. Additionally:


Don't: Make judgements about ideas

Just like quantity of ideas is more important than quality of ideas, it is worth saying again not to judge whatever ideas come out during a brainstorming session. Don’t be overly critical, don’t filter, and don’t edit. That part comes later. The goal of brainstorming is getting as many ideas on paper as possible - regardless of how silly or stupid those ideas might seem at a later date. By stopping to analyze an idea, the brainstorming process is slowed down and a better idea spawned off that initial silly idea could be missed.


Do: Build on ideas

One of the great things about the brainstorming process is that one idea can facilitate or generate even more ideas from it. While it is best not to be judgmental or overly critical of any idea that comes out in the brainstorming process, it is helpful when one idea generates another. Especially if the goal is to chop up some writer’s block, letting ideas spur each other on makes for a powerful and helpful brainstorming session. Don’t be afraid to keep going on one theme or idea if that is what gets the creative juices flowing.


Don't: Dwell on the execution

Brainstorming is just the very first, tiny step in the big process of writing, so this isn’t the time to worry about how to actually execute or write the ideas coming out. Not putting down an idea because it may seem hard to put into practice at the time is limiting the creative thought process. Additionally, debating whether or not an idea is practical or not draws away from the true goal of brainstorming, which is getting out as many ideas as possible. There will be time to narrow down what is doable and what isn’t later. That being said:


Do: Follow through on ideas

Without some follow-through, every bit of energy put into a brainstorming session is useless. The goal of brainstorming is to find some usable ideas that put into a work, whether they evolve around a character, the plot, setting, or other aspects of the story. After the brainstorming session is over, it may be easy to tell which ideas will be easy to execute and which ones are or aren’t worth using. The point of brainstorming is to come out with at least one good idea that can be furthered on for use.


Types of Brainstorming


Just like no two people think alike, no one method of brainstorming works for everyone. Some writers have their own tested methods of coming up with ideas while others prefer to jump around, using different methods depending on what they are trying to create. Trying new methods of brainstorming can also be a good way of getting out of a creative funk. Here are six methods of brainstorming that can be useful.

Freewriting

Just like its name suggests, freewriting is the method of just sitting down and writing. Sometimes known as blind writing, this is a brainstorming technique a lot of writers use without even realizing it. For the best results, setting a timer for how long the freewriting exercise will take place is best. Sitting down and writing for ten or 15 minutes, putting down whatever thoughts come to mind can be a great way of starting a brainstorming process. Those who don’t want to use a timer can set other limits, such as writing until running out of room on a page or until a certain number of ideas or words have been produced. Like mentioned before, leaving behind the inner-critic and writing down everything - regardless of how valuable it might seem at the time - is important. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are also not issues. Some writers find the best way of silencing an inner-critic is to close their eyes while doing a freewriting exercise or turn off a computer monitor so they can’t see what is being typed.


Listing

Not too dissimilar from freewriting, listing or bulletting is a method that takes a certain topic and breaks it down into associated words, ideas, and phrases. Listing can be done similar to word association - taking an idea or word one wants to expand on and coming up with as many related ideas as possible - or as an answer to a question. For example, a writer can ask what a character's motivation might be and then try to come up with as many answers to that question as possible. Listing can also be done by coming up with ideas or words that are the complete opposite of the original concept, possibly done to frame an antagonist against a protagonists or to showcase two contrasting ideas. Like freewriting, timing a listing session can be important to making sure ideas stay fresh.


Mapping/Webbing/Clustering

Known as mapping, webbing, or clustering, this technique is one of the more famous corporate-type brainstorming methods and is also taught a lot in elementary schools to kids working on their first research paper or literary assignment. Simply put, this it the taking of one sole, central topic and then branching off from it in as many directions as possible. A lot of those who use this method map by putting bubbles around each idea and connecting them together. When done, the finished product can look like a spider’s web. The visual component to this technique is one of the reasons it is popular. The end result can also provide a visual representation of which ideas or concepts are more viable or more interesting to the writer than others.


Cubing

Cubing is so named because there are six sides to a cube and this method has six different parts. Writers take a topic and are then required to obey six commands about that particular topic:

  1. Describe it.

  2. Compare it.

  3. Associate it.

  4. Analyze it.

  5. Apply it.

  6. Argue for and against it

Once these tasks are done, the writer then analyzes what has been written. The goal is to look for any new ideas this approach may have uncovered or to see if there is a recurring theme from these ideas that can be used. Is there an aspect of the topic that seems more fruitful to pursue than another? By creating a broader awareness of a topic, a writer can then begin to explore it more in depth.


Researching

For those engaging in creative fiction, researching may not seem like a viable option for brainstorming, but it can help in aspects of writing ranging from non-fiction works to pure imaginative fantasy. Researching is also a pretty straightforward technique. Think of a topic that can be useful or that has to do with the story and research as much about it as possible in a confined time frame. Many writers have found useful stories or anecdote while researching that led them down a new rabbit hole in their story or provided an interesting backdrop or plot point. There is no limit to the things that can be uncovered while researching, whether writing a historical mystery, a novel set in a dystopian future, a recounting of a true crime, or just trying to figure out what types of trees might best support an entire village of elves living in a forest canopy.


Journalistic Questions

Like researching, this might seem like a technique better suited to those writing non-fiction or at least works that might need to include some actual facts in them. The truth is the basics of storytelling can be divided down into the simple questions all journalists have to ask in their stories: Who, what, when, where, why, and how? These questions can be asked about a character, plot, setting, or item in a work. Alternatively, writers might approach a scene or instance for their work like a journalist and think about how a reporter might relay the events they are trying to write.

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