Once you get going on a paper, you can often get into a groove and churn out the bulk of it fairly quickly. But choosing or brainstorming a topic for a paper—especially one with an open-ended prompt—can often be a challenge.
You’ve probably been told to brainstorm ideas for papers since you were in elementary school. Even though you might feel like “brainstorming” is an ineffective method for actually figuring out what to write about, it really works. Everyone thinks through ideas differently, but here are some tips to help you brainstorm more effectively regardless of what learning style works best for you:
Tip #1: Set an end goal for yourself
Develop a goal for your brainstorm. Don’t worry—you can go into brainstorming without knowing exactly what you want to write about, but you should have an idea of what you hope to gain from your brainstorming session. Do you want to develop a list of potential topics? Do you want to come up with ideas to support an argument? Have some idea about what you want to get out of brainstorming so that you can make more effective use of your time.
Tip #2: Write down all ideas
Sure, some of your ideas will be better than others, but you should write all of them down for you to look back on later. Starting with bad or infeasible ideas might seem counterintuitive, but one idea usually leads to another one. Make a list that includes all of your initial thoughts, and then you can go back through and pick out the best one later. Passing judgment on ideas in this first stage will just slow you down.
Tip #3: Think about what interests you most
Students usually write better essays when they’re exploring subjects that they have some personal interest in. If a professor gives you an open-ended prompt, take it as an opportunity to delve further into a topic you find more interesting. When trying to find a focus for your papers, think back on coursework that you found engaging or that raised further questions for you.
Tip #4: Consider what you want the reader to get from your paper
Do you want to write an engaging piece? A thought-provoking one? An informative one? Think about the end goal of your writing while you go through the initial brainstorming process. Although this might seem counterproductive, considering what you want readers to get out of your writing can help you come up with a focus that both satisfies your readers and satisfies you as a writer.
Tip #5: Try freewriting
Write for five minutes on a topic of your choice that you think could be worth pursuing—your idea doesn’t have to be fully fleshed out. This can help you figure out whether it’s worth putting more time into an idea or if it doesn’t really have any weight to it. If you find that you don’t have much to say about a particular topic, you can switch subjects halfway through writing, but this can be a good way to get your creative juices flowing.
Tip #6: Draw a map of your ideas
While some students might prefer the more traditional list methods, for more visual learners, sketching out a word map of ideas may be a useful method for brainstorming. Write the main idea in a circle in the center of your page. Then, write smaller, related ideas in bubbles further from the center of the page and connect them to your initial idea using lines. This is a good way to break down big ideas and to figure out whether they are worth writing about.
Tip #7: Enlist the help of others
Sometimes it can be difficult coming up with paper topics on your own, and family and friends can prove to be valuable resources when developing ideas. Feel free to brainstorm with another person (or in a group). Many hands make light work—and some students work best when thinking through ideas out loud—so don’t be afraid to ask others for advice when trying to come up with a paper topic.
Tip #8: Find the perfect brainstorming spot
Believe it or not, location can make a BIG difference when you’re trying to come up with a paper topic. Working while watching TV is never a good idea, but you might want to listen to music while doing work, or you might prefer to sit in a quiet study location. Think about where you work best, and pick a spot where you feel that you can be productive.
Tip #9: Play word games to help generate ideas
Whether you hate playing word games or think they’re a ton of fun, you might want to try your hand at a quick round of Words With Friends or a game of Scrabble. These games can help get your brain working, and sometimes ideas can be triggered by words you see. Get a friend to play an old-fashioned board game with you, or try your hand at a mobile app if you’re in a time crunch.
Tip #10: Take a break to let ideas sink in
Brainstorming is a great way to get all of your initial thoughts out there, but sometimes you need a bit more time to process all of those ideas. Stand up and stretch—or even take a walk around the block—and then look back on your list of ideas to see if you have any new thoughts on them.
For many students, the most difficult process of paper writing is simply coming up with an idea about what to write on. Don’t be afraid to get all of your ideas out there through brainstorming, and remember that all ideas are valid. Take the time necessary to sort through all of your ideas, using whatever method works best for you, and then get to writing—but don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board if a new inspiration strikes.
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Brainstorming ideas for essays in exams
Writing essays is a task you are very likely to have to do for Cambridge First, Advanced and Proficiency, as well as IELTS.
Even if you've got the right level of grammar and vocabulary for your written exam, there's one more thing you need to be good at to get the best marks: having ideas and organising them. And you need to be able to get that done in about ten minutes.
Failing to plan essays is one of the biggest reasons candidates fail their writing exam. There are two reasons why you should never overlook this stage.
- It gives you a structure to follow and ideas to include so you actually save time while writing. You don't want to have to think about writing correct English and varying your vocabulary at the same time as coming up with ideas!
- If you run out of time at the end of the exam, at least you have some notes which you could quickly add as sentences to round off the final couple of paragraphs. This way the examiner can see that you had a complete idea and a conclusion for your essay, so you'll lose fewer marks for organisation and cohesion.
Many candidates get stuck at the brainstorming stage. The good news is that, just like with anything else, practice is the answer.
How to brainstorm
The point of brainstorming is that ALL your ideas go down on paper. You select the good ones afterwards, not before you write them down. Many people think everything they write has to be good, but that's not true at this stage. Turn off the "editor" in your head and just write whatever comes into your mind on the topic.
For essays, draw two columns:
Not all essays have to be answered with this two-sided structure but it's the best way to start brainstorming as it makes sure all your ideas will go into the brainstorm.
Now write 4 or 5 ideas for each column. Let's use an FCE-level exam question as an example.
Famous people, such as politicians and film stars, deserve to have a private life without journalists following them all the time.
- It's just their job like anyone else so they deserve privacy too.
- The level of media attention can cause celebrities psychological/physical damage.
- The "gossip culture" that is created by this kind of press is harmful to society in general.
- The media attention can stop them actually doing their job as it takes up so much of their time.
- These gossip stories waste news space when we could be reading about more serious issues.
- If you do these kinds of jobs, you have to accept the bad parts as well as the good, like money, nice lifestyle, free clothes etc.
- These people use the media when they want to promote something, like a film, so they can't complain when they don't want the attention.
- The public have a right to know if influential people are doing bad things like drugs etc.
- There are famous people you never see in the papers, therefore only the ones that want to be followed are followed.
- Gossip magazines provide entertainment for people.
Not all your ideas should go into your essay. Choose the strongest arguments and the ones you think you can develop and give supporting arguments and examples for.
Another way to make sure you have a solid essay is to match arguments with their counter arguments. Which points from the "agree" side match up with points from the "disagree side"?**
Which ideas do you think you could develop?
Planning a structure
Once you've chosen, then it's time to organise your ideas into a structure.
- Cross out the ideas you're not using.
- Write a little number next to the points you want to use to show which order they're going to go in.
- Make brief notes – one or two keywords – to remind you how you're going to support or develop the arguments. For example, Agree 2: Britney Spears, Princess Diana.
- Plan your introduction to focus the direction your essay will take.
Practice essay planning until you can get it done in ten minutes.
** 1 and 1
3:3/5 and 5
Article contributed by Nicola Prentis who is a teacher and materials writer, based in Madrid and London. She is the author of Speaking Skills (B2+) - a self study book with Collins.