How to Brainstorm
by Chris Angelopoulos
Writers often have trouble coming up with ideas for the task ahead. From a student writing a paper to an entrepreneur writing a business plan to a writer coming up with ideas for the next story, almost every walk of life requires the generation of original ideas. Brainstorming refers to any number of methods used to break out of inaction and build a runway of ideas that give a project direction and enable it to take off. This guide will cover different brainstorming methods and how to get the most out of them.
One of the fundamental ways of brainstorming is generating free-flowing ideas. Instead of getting caught up in trying for perfection right off the bat, it focuses on generating ideas without worrying about quality, order, or relevance. When you are writing a paper, you can start by freewriting. This works especially well if you know the general direction of your topic. The best way to do this is to set a timer for a certain number of minutes, for example, 15 minutes, or to set a minimum number of words, such as 500, and write with abandon on your topic until you reach your goal. If you are setting a word count goal, you can use Speare to add up the tally for you. Every block of text you enter is a node. You can create a parent node to serve as a folder, drop all the child nodes from your freewriting section into it, right click on it, and select “Word Count”. Once you reach your goal, it’s time to go looking for that diamond in the rough draft. Your ideas may not be expressed perfectly yet, but you are likely to find something for you efforts.
Another similar technique is to just start writing down words or ideas as they come to you. This might be an even easier way to start if you are not sure of the general topic you plan to focus on. For this method, it’s best to set a goal for the number of words or ideas you want to generate. Write until you reach your goal, and then go searching through your ideas until something pops out at you.
It can be freeing to write without any guidelines at all. Sometimes, however, it is the link binding one idea to another that can unlock creativity. One basic method is working with word associations. Start with a related topic or even the first word that comes to you. What does that make you think of? Write down the first word that comes to mind. You can connect the two related words or ideas with an arrow. Repeat the process, discovering new connections you hadn’t thought of.
Mind mapping is another association technique. This requires a bit more focus. After you have settled on a concept, mind mapping might be your second stage of brainstorming. Start with the central idea, then branch out from there. In Speare, you can use nodes to easily create a mind map. Let’s say the subject of your work is dogs. We could start by entering “Dogs” into the Palette section of the Speare interface. What do we know about dogs? For starters, there are many breeds. We create a “Breeds” node and drop it into dogs. There are different varieties of retrievers, German Shepherds, etc., which we can create and drop into “Breeds”. We could also write down “Foods”, “Disposition”, “Job”, etc., and drop them all into the parent “Dogs” node. The next step would be to fill the subcategories just like we did with ‘’Breeds”. With this technique, we have mapped out our main concepts and hopefully made some connections that will give direction to the paper and allow us to be more thorough.
In some cases, it’s necessary to take a more analytical approach to generating ideas. One such approach is asking the journalistic who, what, where, why, when, and how questions. When beginning to write a story, it’s important to know the details in order to relate them effectively to readers. Knowing who, the subject of the story, is a good first step. Once again, you could start by creating a category for each question in Speare. When thinking about where, you will start the process of creating the world in which your story will take place.
Another analytical technique is doing a SWOT analysis and looking at Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. This can be especially helpful in writing a business plan. Every business needs to understand its internal attributes and the external environment it exists within. For writing the company description portion of the business plan, you can start by looking at what your company is especially good at, your Strengths, and then fairly assess any current Weaknesses that you need to address or minimize. Understanding your customers, competitors, and other Opportunities and Threats will greatly aid in writing a market analysis.
The final category deals with overcoming our often narrow perspective of the world or the challenge we are currently facing. Our life experiences give us a deep understanding of the particular path we’ve walked in order to end up at our current destination. However, there is a wide world of experiences different from our own that, if we consider them, might lead us to a new way to think about how we should approach our task. There are two basic ways to do this: imagine that the problem is different or imagine that you are different.
Many of the high-profile brainstorming techniques found in the ubiquitous list of articles populating the internet today focus on imagining you are a rich or famous figure – real or fictional. How would you approach this issue if you were Bill Gates or Batman? You could imagine yourself as older or younger, living in a different country or period of history, having a different skill set, etc. Imagine what conventional wisdom would say and then consider the opposite of that. If you are working on a big project, you could imagine it as a small project and try to apply the same ideas.
All of these techniques are just a way to jump start your brain to break out of inaction, tap into your natural creativity, and maybe find a novel perspective along the way. Although this article is written with individual brainstorming in mind, most of the methods mentioned also can be done in a group. You can combine the freewriting and associative techniques into one by having group members pass around a sheet of paper and build a chain of ideas that starts with the first person and expands from there.
When you begin brainstorming, you expand your horizons to include many new ideas. Anything is possible. You just have to start.