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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

What is Brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a method of generating ideas. Brainstorming can be done by individuals to prepare for writing or by groups to solve problems. Writers use brainstorming to generate ideas to write about.

What we call brainstorming today was developed in the 1940s when advertising executive Alex F. Osborn wanted to encourage his employees to generate new, creative ideas. Osborn called this process “thinking up,” in the sense of thinking up new ideas. Later, the term brainstorming was made popular in Osborn’s 1967 book Applied Imagination.

The brainstorming process is used to generate ideas for writing.


Why is Brainstorming Important?

Brainstorming can improve the quality of an essay or paper by helping the writer generate many, varied ideas before beginning to write. The most important element of an essay is its content – the information and ideas presented. Brainstorming can help a writer create strong content because it can:

  • Produce a variety of ideas to work with
  • Produce more ideas to work with
  • Help the writer take a position on the topic
  • Improve creativity in writing
  • Help the writer efficiently write relevant content
  • Help the writer stay focused on the topic of the essay
  • Strengthen the organization of writing
  • Reduce blocks in writing
  • Reduce deletion of writing
  • Reduce writing anxiety
  • Help the writer focus on grammar when writing

Brainstorming is an important step to complete before outlining the major points needed to create a well-organized essay.

Brainstorming for Writing

Brainstorming for writing is a common example of individual brainstorming. Individual brainstorming is done by one person as a solitary activity. In contrast, group brainstorming, in which several people generate ideas, is often used to solve a problem.

A writer can use brainstorming to:

  • Choose a topic
  • Develop a topic
  • Determine a plot
  • Find a focus when asked to address a broad topic

Brainstorming is helpful for timed essays, research papers, and creative writing.

Brainstorming Techniques

Brainstorming techniques include freewriting, listing, clustering, and mapping.


Freewriting is brainstorming by writing ideas about a topic in continuous prose but without concern for grammar. This process is especially useful for creative writing, such as short stories. The writer tries to write as much as they can about the topic, without stopping.

Freewriting is done by writing continuously without concern for grammar or spelling.

Freewriting about time management


Listing is the most commonly used brainstorming technique. The writer writes ideas in a list in the order in which they come to mind.


Another technique for brainstorming is concept mapping. In a concept map, the main idea is placed at the top of a diagram. Branches are drawn downwards to record aspects of the main idea. Then more branches are drawn downwards to record more specific ideas. This process can continue downwards through more levels as more specific ideas come to mind.

Concept maps typically use a hierarchical structure that branches down from the main topic

Concept map about the replacement of the Articles of Confederation


In clustering, the writer places the main topic in the center of a diagram and circles it. Around the main topic, the writer adds other words or phrases that come to mind, circles them, and draws lines connecting them to the main topic. These words are often subtopics or aspects of the main topic. Then words are similarly written around each of these added words. These new words are again circled and connected by lines. A cluster diagram can show how many related concepts the writer has available to work with when developing the content of an essay.

Cluster diagrams place the main topic in the middle and ideas radiate out in all directions.

Cluster diagram

Steps in the Brainstorming Writing Process

There are two distinct steps in the brainstorming writing process:

  1. Generate ideas.
  2. Decide which ideas are good and which ones aren’t useful.

First, to generate ideas, use a list, freewriting, concept map, or cluster diagram. A list captures ideas in the order in which they are generated. Concept maps and cluster diagrams show how ideas relate to each other.

Second, when deciding which ideas are not useful, consider several factors, depending on what kind of writing is needed:

  • How well each idea relates to the question or topic that must be addressed
  • How many ideas support each position when taking a stance on an issue
  • How well each idea can support the main point in an argument

To distinguish good ideas, cross out the ideas that are not useful.

Examples of Brainstorming for Writing

Let’s consider some specific examples to see how the two steps of brainstorming work. These examples will illustrate how the list, concept map, and cluster brainstorming techniques can help writers prepare for writing.

Example of Listing

Imagine being asked to write a persuasive essay about whether or not students in public schools should be required to wear uniforms. To write an effective persuasive essay, it is essential to have enough strong reasons to support one position. Using the list approach to brainstorming, write down all the ideas that come to mind about the topic, such as:

  • Students may not like the uniforms
  • Saves time when getting ready for school
  • May not be comfortable
  • Forces parents to buy new clothes
  • Reduces creativity and self-expression through clothing
  • Creates a safer environment
  • Reduces distractions at school
  • School is boring
  • Fosters school pride
  • Can save parents money
  • Creates a sense of community

In this first step, it is essential not to limit or eliminate ideas prematurely. The goal is to think of and record all the ideas that might be relevant.

When no more ideas come to mind, move on to the second step. Review the list of ideas and decide which are useful and which are not. In this case, because the brainstorming is for a persuasive essay, this also involves deciding which stance to take. So it may help to identify and mark which ideas support an argument for requiring uniforms and which ideas support an argument for not requiring uniforms. Then compare which group has more ideas and more convincing ideas. This will clarify whether the ideas will create a more persuasive argument for or against uniforms. This will also reveal if some ideas – such as ”school is boring” – are not relevant after all.

Example of Clustering

In other essays, several aspects of a topic must be discussed. Imagine being asked to write a paper about gardening. In this case, creating a concept map or cluster diagram may help identify the important aspects of the topic that need to be discussed. A concept map or cluster diagram can also help generate enough ideas about each aspect to create a balanced essay. For example, to complete the cluster diagram above, brainstorming would continue until specific ideas were added for several areas, including light, soil, purpose, and harvest. Once no more ideas come to mind, each idea can be evaluated to determine whether it should be addressed in the paper. Once this step is completed, outlining is the next step.

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