Freewriting | Clustering | Listing | Questioning | Talking and Reading

Finding Ideas for Writing

Everyone learns in different ways.  Part of becoming a successful writer is discovering what works best for you. To start writing, you need two things: 

1) a clear idea of what you want to write about

2) evidence to support that idea. 

Your writing will be more focused and more effective if you think not just about topics but about ideas. Writer Sheridan Baker likes to ask students about their writing, "What's the big idea?"  If your idea is clear and you can back up your idea you have the basis for a good essay or paragraph.

Your subject should be something that will interest your reader and that you feel you can say something about that reflects your unique experience and point of view.  Avoid the obvious.  Writing on a topic like the difference between the rich and the poor may lead to statements like, " The rich have more money than the poor". Your reader is likely to say, "So what? That's not exactly news".  However, if you were to approach this topic from a different angle such as how money affects a person's outlook on life, you have a good starting point.

Often you will have a general sense that you want to write about a certain topic, but haven't really decided what you want to say.  Before you write, take some time to do some brainstorming to find some ideas.  Listing, clustering, questioning, freewriting, and discussion are all ways to generate ideas about your topic.

You may find that you like to make lists and begin working with a clear structure in mind before you start writing.  Or you may prefer to freewrite, see what ideas you come up with, and then try to craft your ideas into a finished paragraph.  There is no "right way" when it comes to writing. As you write more, you will discover which of the following techniques work best for you and make you most productive. 


Freewriting

Suppose you wanted to write a paragraph on the influence of TV on children.  You might begin by freewriting about all the ways you can think of that TV influences children.

Don't worry if your ideas seem disconnected and fragmented. Just get down as many thoughts as you can and worry about organizing them later. Allow yourself ten minutes and then stop and see what you have.  Look at this example:

Freewriting Example: TV and children

Kids watch too much TV.  Lots of commercials selling junk food.  Nobody's real.  Most shows are really stupid. Kids can sit and watch junk for hours.  Kids get hooked and and don't want to play with friendsórather watch TV. Lots of educational shows but the kids always prefer junk.  Many shows are violent.  Lots of murders and guns.  Works great as a babysitter when you're tired and just don't want to deal with kids. Kids want to get everything that's on TV. 

From your freewriting, you can generate enough ideas for a paragraph in a short time. Your next step is to look at the ideas in your freewriting and decide what you seem to be saying about your topic. In this example, most of the statements about TV are negative. 

Select these points and organize them into a list. See Listing below.


Clustering or Mapping

Clustering is another way to develop ideas for your writing. The clustering approach often reveals new and unexpected connections between ideas and allows you to see different themes and categories of thought. The technique is fairly simple: write your topic in a circle in the middle of the page and think of as many different aspects of this topic as you can. Continue on with ideas related to these new points until you feel you have enough ideas for your paragraph or essay. Then organize your ideas into lists or themes. Here's an example of clustering on the topic of T.V. and Kids:


Listing

You may prefer to begin by listing and find you can come up with sufficient ideas for your writing in this way.  Or you may find you prefer to free writing, idea clustering or some other way of gathering ideas such as talking with others, questioning or reading.

If you are able to organize your ideas clearly as you write, you might do this stage mentally rather than as a written list.  But most writers benefit from written notes or lists before they begin writing.

Here's an example of working from a list of ideas to develop a paragraph: 

Your initial list might include these points:

  • children learn to accept violent behaviour as normal
  • encourages materialism
  • presents unrealistic role models
  • educational
  • entertaining, helps pass time
  • watching TV replaces physical exercise
  • replaces social relationships

After looking at your list, you will probably see that there are more negative effects than positive ones.  Your topic sentence will reflect this idea.

The paragraph below is based on the ideas from the list.  (Of course this is a revised version, not the first draft)  Some points have been eliminated and some have been combined into one sentence. The topic sentence is in bold, the supporting sentences are highlighted, the transitions are in italics, and the conclusion is in bold. (For more on paragraphs)

What Children Learn from TV

Parents of young children should be aware of the strong negative influence watching too much TV has on children.  First of all, TV teaches children to accept violent behaviour as normal.  Children may see hundreds of "murders" every year and soon treat them with little concern.  Secondly, TV teaches children to be materialistic.  This is not surprising given that TV supports itself by selling products.  Another negative aspect of TV is that it presents unrealistic role models.  Most children don't know the kinds of wealthy, carefree, beautiful people that are portrayed on the screen.  Finally, children sometimes substitute TV for social and physical activities.  TV watchers can become physically and socially "out of shape".   It's easy to argue that TV is educational, but if you're really concerned about your kids, turn off that TV.  


Questioning

Yet another way of coming up with ideas involves questioning yourself and your beliefs about a topic. Make a list of questions about your topic and try to come up with some answers.  For example:

  • Why does TV appeal so much to children?
  • Is watching TV doing any long-term damage?
  • How does seeing violence on TV affect children?
  • How much TV should kids watch?
  • What's the harm in watching TV if kids like it?
  • Is TV making kids lazy?

You could go on until you run out of ideas.  Your answers to these types of questions will reveal your view and provide a starting point for writing about this topic.


Talking and Reading about Your Topic

Sometimes, after making lists or freewriting on you topic you may still feel you don't have a clear idea about what you want to say.  If you are still convinced about the value of your topic, talk about it with a friend and see if you can come up with some new ideas or approach the subject from a new angle.

Reading about your subject can help you identify further ideas, and it can also give you the precise vocabulary necessary to discuss your topic effectively.  Try to find a short magazine or newspaper article on your topic.  Read through it carefully to find the main ideas and underline key words as you read.  You can use these later in your own writing.

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This page was last updated September 14, 2005

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