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

If You Have a Lot of Time

Sometimes the hardest part of writing an essay is just getting it started. For that, good brainstorming is an important first step to writing a really cracking essay. Let’s explore some techniques for brainstorming depending on whether you have time to write an essay or if you’re under the gun.

Brainstorm in a Group

The original meaning of the term brainstorming is just what it sounds like – a storm of brains. Okay, not literally, but the idea was that getting a bunch of people together to talk about ideas would produce more and better ones than one person sitting alone by him or herself. Most of the time, you’re going to get essay assignments as a class – so grab some study partners and talk it out. Even if you haven’t picked the same topics, just talking about the text you’re reading should help the group come up with more ideas together.

If you’re familiar with this kind of brainstorming, you may have been told that the best approach is to not question or criticize the ideas of others while you’re doing it. But, research suggests that that couldn’t be further from the truth. According to a 2003 study from the University of California at Berkeley, people who debated each other’s ideas in a brainstorming session came up with 20% more ideas collectively than those who brainstormed in a criticism-free environment. What’s more, individuals in the debate group – when asked after if they had any additional ideas – came up with twice as many good ideas than people in the criticism-free group. In other words, it turns out a little argument can be good for the creative mind!

List, List, List

Of course, you don’t always have the option of brainstorming with a group. In these cases, you can try the 100 rule. Which is, you think of 100 ideas on the topic you’re given. Most importantly, write down any idea – regardless of how ridiculous it sounds.

So, if you’re asked to write an essay on To Kill a Mockingbird, and your idea is to relate that to the death of mockingbird populations in the early 1920s – go right ahead! If you want to compare Catcher in the Rye to Mike Piazza’s Major League Baseball record, write it down! By including the weird, outlandish ideas, you’ll stimulate the growth of the really good (even great) ideas. Even if you don’t make it to 100, by the time you get to 30 or 40 on the list, you should start to see ideas that pull your essay into focus.

Let your Mind Wander

If you find yourself staring at the page, fresh out of good ideas for your essay, take a 10- or 15-minute break and do something diverting, but not too mentally taxing. Play a game of Angry Birds, for instance – something that helps you zone out. Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that people were more effective at the same tasks that they had been working on previously, after they took a break and let their minds wander for a while.

If you’re going to be in a Time-Crunch

Brainstorming an essay for a timed test is a different animal than brainstorming for an essay in which you have the leisure of writing from home. During timed tests you might get a little more than a half hour total to write your essay – that includes brainstorming, outlining and actually writing the darn thing. So, how do you write a great essay under these conditions? Let’s look at a couple of kinds of essays you might face.

Position Papers

Say you’re given a position paper in which you’re asked to agree or disagree with a given argument. For example: ‘Write an essay in which you agree or disagree with the following statement: whatever doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.’

Right away, before you brainstorm specific ideas, you should break down the question. Agree and disagree columns don’t really lead you anywhere, so let’s be more specific:

  • Column A: things that didn’t kill me but didn’t make me stronger.
  • Column B: things that haven’t killed me and did make me stronger.
  • Column C: things that didn’t kill me, but it remains to be seen if I’m any better for it.

If you have only five or ten minutes to brainstorm, try a modified version of the 100 rule. This is to say, write down as many ideas that come to you for both sides of the issue, as well as those that fall in the middle. Call it the 5-minute rule. Spend a full five minutes jotting down whatever comes to mind – no matter how ridiculous. Then, sift through and see if some of those ideas can be connected to each other.

Whichever column has the stronger examples should tell you what approach you should take on your essay. Draw examples from whatever’s available to you, but the best essays will use your personal experience and knowledge of history and current events to make a persuasive argument. Pro tip: if you get stuck and just can’t think of anything on these timed tests, relax, re-read the prompt and try again. No topic is too impressive.

Synthesis Papers

Another kind of paper you may be asked to write is one in which you must develop a position from different sources, like this: ‘Read the following sources, then construct an essay on whether you believe that reading comic books hurts or harms children.’

In these essays, you’ll need to spend more time brainstorming as you’ll be given sources to read and you’ll also have your own ideas to come up with. First, read the passages, then, do the same as if you didn’t have sources to draw from. Figure out what your position is first by listing the pros and cons of that approach, and then dig back into the readings and try to pull out more examples that support your position (or oppose it). Use that to develop your essay. This will help you form an essay that is more your own than just the text’s.

Lesson Review

  1. Try to get a group session together (and remember that criticism is a good thing).
  2. Try the 100 rule (and don’t delete the bad ideas).
  3. Break down the argument into columns and use a modified 100 rule for timed tests. Call it the 5-minute rule.
  4. For synthesis papers, read the text first and then brainstorm.
  5. Don’t worry if you get stuck! Relax, re-read the prompt and try again.
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