Top 5 Brainstorming Tips for Writers

Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, culling personal experiences or synthesizing information from interviews or research, brainstorming is at the heart of any successful project.

I think of brainstorming not just as coming up with something, but as developing ideas from a single grain into a probing, insightful exploration of your subject matter.  Brainstorming can create the difference between an expected, average piece to something that adds true value by making the reader stop and think, or by revealing to her a different side of the topic.  Of course, brainstorming can also be absolutely necessary when you’re in a rut and unsure of how to get from A to C.

Over my eighteen (or so) years as a writer (of reviews, short stories, blog posts, e-books and product descriptions) I’ve developed many techniques for brainstorming, since I refuse to just sit and stare at a blank screen.  Here are five of my favorites.

1. Cause and Effect

OK, say you’re writing on posting personal information on social networking sites.  It’s only so interesting to list types of information to not share.  A better article, blog post, chapter, etc. will dig deeper.  So, what I do is open up a new Word document and brainstorm in two main categories to make the article more probing: a. causes b. effects.

What are some causes for people posting TMI (too much information) that might get them in trouble?  A need for sympathy? A feeling that they’ve seen others post worse without getting in trouble?

What are some effects?  Hurting the feelings of someone to whom the information might apply?  Getting disciplined on the job?

I think of examples I’ve witnessed or been involved in, and I might use Google to find some causes and effects.  I do this all the time and it’s hard to find a worthwhile topic to which it doesn’t apply.

2. Go Off the Page

This one is specific to fiction.  Sometimes it is hard to know how to get the B to bridge the A and the C.  You want a character to get angry at his brother, you’re just not sure how.  Going off the page means, for me, opening up a new Word document and writing a scene between the characters that isn’t meant to be in the piece on which you’re working.

Have your characters sitting at Denny’s ordering breakfast.  Describe them playing badminton or doing the dishes.  Write them having coffee with Vanessa Hudgens and Winston Churchill.  The idea is to have the characters do your work for you, telling you about themselves and their interests and desires.  Ultimately, the thing that makes your character angry at your brother comes from this.  If you’re creative, you can apply this to non-fiction articles, too.

3. Flip The Script

When you’re in a rut, aren’t you essentially looking for a way to see things differently?  What if you do a 180 and look at things from the opposite viewpoint?  If I were applying this to the article on inappropriate personal posts, as above, I’d write a few words and phrases as though making an argument for going crazy and posting highly incriminating info.  That will put things in new relief, exposing me to factors I hadn’t yet considered.

4. Stick a Pin in Your Brain

You’re wondering what kind of metaphor I’m constructing, yeah?  Sometimes, no matter what, the ideas we need aren’t going to come right now.

Hashing out notes, standing on our head, playing word association with a buddy just won’t make things happen.  Not right now.  Keep writing, flagging a space in the piece, and “put a pin” in the idea you’re struggling with.

Assign it to a part in your brain, which will hopefully be working on it while the rest of your mind does other conscious work.  It won’t be hard to know when your other brain section has done its job, and that has to do with the next tip.

5. Just Walk Away

As discussed in #4, if it were as easy as just writing out words and making them do their work, life would be too easy, and freelance writers would be out of employment.  It might sound like a cliché, but physically removing yourself from the desk is not only a good idea at times, but sometimes absolutely necessary.

I find that ideas will burst into my frontal cortex when I’m away from the desk, doing dishes, walking, pacing, heading to the store for flax chips, whatever.  It’s as though the idea physically lives down the road and I have to go there to hook up with it.

So, the next time you see a writer who looks a little flabby and out of shape, you can guess he or she passes off some stale ideas.  Recommend for him or her to get out and stroll as a way of generating fresh new thoughts.

I think brainstorming is all about unfamiliarity, all about finding new perspectives.  Use these tips for a while, and hopefully you’ll adapt them into something new.

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Jeff Maehre is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter. His fiction has appeared in Story, The Northwest Review, Cutbank, and Phoebe; he often blogs and writes other copy about social media.


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