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Techniques for Brainstorming Great Ideas

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  • 0:12 Techniques for Brainstorming
  • 0:28 If You Have Time
  • 3:05 If You're in a Crunch
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Curley
Great essays are made up of great ideas. Finding those great ideas is the first critical step on the road to writing a terrific essay. Learn some popular and effective brainstorming techniques that will work whether you have an hour or two weeks to write your paper.

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.

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