In freshman writing courses, I would address how to begin a writing project. It was one of the hardest parts of the whole process. So, I started to talk about concrete steps students could take to jumpstart their writing. However, they are also applicable to writing outside of the classroom.
One of the first steps in any writing project takes place when you are generating ideas. It often occurs in the prewriting stage. Another term for this process is called “invention.”
Invention is the prcess by which writers and speakers come up with content material — what they will write about or speak about.
However, knowing how to come up with new ideas when you are looking at the blank page can be intimidating. Luckily there are some specific strategies that help you generate new ideas to write about.
Gather your materials before you start
One way writers generate ideas is from material they are exposed to. These materials help them to decide what they will write about. This often involves reading a wide variety of texts and/or delving deep into a subject.
For example, you can take note of various parts of what you are reading for later reference. Some people keep “reading journals.” They can be as simple as copying and pasting key snippets from various sources. You can also bookmark webpages that might serve as later inspiration. Then you can highlight these texts with a marker and paper, or via an electronic reader like the Kindle.
The key in this step is it to find sources that spark new ideas and can be rich resources for inspiration.
Analyze the five W’s in a topic
While you are narrowing down a possible topic, a strategy for generating new ideas can be as simple as writers looking at who, what, when, where, and why of any particular subject. Understanding these dynamics can help you explore a topic further. It can also help spark further inquiries.
Often, this exploration of these “Ws” takes place while researching various subjects. You can combine delving in depth with the process of collecting information. Once you find something interesting to look into, and make note of it, you can use the knowledge to generate new ideas.
Use specific starting points to jumpstart the process
There are different starting points for writers in generating ideas. Two include:
- Defining a subject according to different settings or moral situations.
- Understanding what caused/causes/or will cause something.
Knowing how things are connected and exploring further connections can help generate new ideas.
Examine “testimony” in order to explore ideas
You can also generate new ideas by looking at what can be called testimony. Testimony involves looking at what authorities say about a subject and evaluating those authorities. You can ask yourself:
- What information can you get from your research from various experts?
- What is the consensus about a specific subject?
Analyzing respected opinions or conclusions can be a great way to start thinking about subjects. You can also think about ways you might challenge these prevailing thoughts, or approach a problem in a new way.
Keep a record of your various ideas
Another method in invention can be the use of a personal journal. Ideas written about in journal entries can easily be expanded on in various types of writing.
There are various methods within journaling that can help you come up with ideas including brainstorming and mapping.
- Brainstorming can be used when you write everything that comes to mind about a particular subject.
- Mapping or clustering is a particular method of brainstorming and can be a way of organizing different types of random thoughts.
Examine how an topic relates to other ideas
Another tool in invention involves comparing various ideas. Ask yourself:
- What makes an idea different from others?
- Which place or slot a subject occupies in the context of other ideas.
Understanding the context of an idea can expand your perception of a subject. Once you have a wider perspective, you may generate more ideas.
Understand the “physics” of ideas
Another approach involves looking at a subject from a wave, particle or field analogy.
- A particle approach involves looking at a subject as unrelated to physical or chronological conditions.
- A wave approach emphasizes change and flow.
- The field perspective is interested in the relationship among the whole and its parts.
To use these approaches, it is best that writers have a thesis or subject to write about and then they run it through each method in order to explore the possible angles to the thesis or subject.
Incorporate a free flow of ideas
Another effective approach to generate ideas involves freewriting. This is a ritual that can elicit possible new subjects in which the conscious mind previously might not have had access to.
Freewriting involves writers exploring a topic for a certain amount of time without stopping or censoring themselves. The point is to focus on writing with little thought of what others might think of the final product.
In fact, combined with brainstorming, free writing can aid in writing longer pieces. One advantage of this approach is that it gets you comfortable with the very act of writing — rather than just concentrating on the end result of that writing.
These steps are some very specific ways to help you generate ideas. My students had no trouble coming up with ideas when they used these strategies. You can use them at the beginning of a project to help you get started or to move a project along. The key is to see the process of invention as something you can control. Coming up with ideas doesn’t have to be hard.