Brainstorming: It’s like traveling with a plan

The brainstorming process gives direction and focus to writing. It's like planning and mapping out a trip before hitting the road.

Making the Most of a Road Trip

I recently overheard someone claim that teaching students to brainstorm is a futile exercise. “In the real world, no one actually brainstorms,” she said. “We just write.”

This statement surprised me, for it reminded me of taking a trip with little more than a vague notion of a plan (“I want to see the USA”). You can set off on your trek, but without a map, timetable, or sightseeing strategy, you’ll end up rabbit-trailing your way to your journey’s end.

While this may be fine for a bohemian, it can frustrate the traveler who really wants to visit a particular landmark but can’t find the turnoff; annoy her for missing some must-see points of interest because she lingered too long in a mediocre little town; and aggravate her when she finds herself going in circles. Worse, she could end up seeing nothing at all because she has absolutely no idea which way to go.

It’s fun to be spontaneous, but to get the most from a road trip, there’s nothing like an itinerary.

The Value of Brainstorming 

Like a free-spirited traveler, a writer may have a general idea of where he wants to go. He may even know a point or two he wants to make along the way. But without a sense of direction, he too will miss important details, spend unnecessary time on a trivial side note, or spin his wheels in one rut or another.

One of the most valuable pre-writing tools for launching the writing process and avoiding other pitfalls is brainstorming.

Students often struggle with knowing how to move from a general topic to a written essay because that paralyzing blank page stands in the way. Brainstorming is a problem-solving process that helps you:

  • Think freely and openly about your topic.
  • Put pen to paper as you write whatever ideas come to mind.
  • Explore possibilities and connections between ideas.
  • Let new ideas form and shape old ones.
  • Start to bring order and organization to your scattered thoughts.

Most importantly, brainstorming has no wrong answers. It allows you to think through your topic without fear of criticism or perfection.

3 Steps of the Brainstorming Process

  • FREE-LISTING: Free-listing helps you develop an initial page of ideas about the topic by writing absolutely anything—key words, phrases, examples, main points, subpoints, details, illustrations—that come to mind to jog your thoughts about your subject. Free-listing uses the heuristic inquiry, more commonly known as the 5 Ws (and an H)—who, what, when, where, why, how. Once this primary list is “complete,” note which of your ideas would qualify as main points or categories and which would be better suited as supporting details or examples.
  • MIND-MAPPING: Next, filter your free-listing ideas through a semantic mind-map. A semantic mind-map is used to represent ideas, words, or thoughts that are connected to and organized around a central key word or concept. Mind-maps are designed to help create, visualize, classify, and structure ideas.
  • RE-LISTING: Finally, organize your ideas according to the groups or clusters created by the semantic mind-map. Identify the central idea (main point) of the various clusters and list supporting details beneath and prioritize these clusters/main points into a logical order. Re-listing results in a rudimentary outline of your initial thoughts and ideas.

These three steps of the brainstorming process remind me of a coin-sorting machine.

You start off with a jumbled, disorganized pile of coins (ideas). Nickels, dimes, quarters, pennies—there’s no rhyme or reason to their scattered placement on the kitchen table. This is your initial attempt at free-listing.

To start putting the coins in their appropriate place, you gather them up and put them into a coin-sorting machine (semantic mind-map). The machine divides the coins (ideas) by kind, just like the bubbles of a mind-map divide your ideas by category.

Finally, watch as your coins come out of the sorting machine in rows of quarters, dimes, and nickels neatly arranged (re-list). In this way, putting your ideas through a mind-map will help you rearrange them into newly organized lists that set the priorities for your paper.

Taking the Trip

You think about the gazillion places you want to visit. You explore websites and sort through piles of travel brochures. Once you have a sense of where you’re going and what there is to see and do, you plot out a route and plan the details. Along the way you may take a detour or explore a new place, but you’ll never stray far from your original plan.

Because you took time to brainstorm, your readers will enjoy the journey with you—and will thank you for being such an excellent guide!

Copyright 2011 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

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6 comments ↓

#1 JoJo Tabares on 04.07.11 at 9:18 am

“In the real world, no one actually brainstorms”…”We just write.” ???

That might be the reason why so many inter office emails, sales letters and online manuals make no sense.

#2 Kim on 04.07.11 at 10:12 am

Tell me about it!

#3 Janet on 04.07.11 at 12:28 pm

Ha! That’s a good observation, JoJo!

#4 Dave on 04.07.11 at 11:39 pm

Thank you for a great article and analogy. I just got done reading about different brainstorming techniques, and this just reaffirms its importance. I’m setting aside some time today for this purpose.

#5 Rambling Heather on 04.08.11 at 6:52 am

Oooooh I loved reading this post! I agree with you 100%! I am thrilled to have found your site through your comment on Heart of the Matter. I am going to go grab my coffee and stay a while :)

#6 Kim on 04.08.11 at 9:29 am

Dave: That’s very kind of you to say. Hope your brainstorming session yields great fruit!

Heather: Hope you find some little nuggets to tuck away. You might especially enjoy some of the reluctant writer articles. Oh, and I found YOUR post through HOTM in my FB news feed. :)

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