Gabriele Lusser Rico first explained clustering in a book called Writing the Natural Way. I’ve also heard it called “word bubbles.” You’ll need a word or phrase, to begin with when you try this exercise. You’ll need to do this exercise on paper, not on the computer. If you’re writing fiction, you might want to choose the name of a character, or a mood, or a place. Business or nonfiction writers should begin with your topic or subject, such as “performance reports” or “taxes.”
To cluster, first, write your word or phrase in the center of a fresh piece of paper and circle it. Then allow yourself to go off on a chain of associations from your original word or phrase. Draw a short line to each new word, write the word, circle it, and then draw a short line to the next word that comes to mind and circle that, and so on. As with freewriting, it’s important to do it quickly, not to censor yourself, and not to worry whether or not the associations make sense. Any time you feel you’ve run out of associations, return to your original word or phrase and start again.
As you continue to cluster, you’ll see a whole lot of word bubbles take shape on your paper.
Set your timer for five minutes and cluster when I say “go.” Any time you get stuck, start again at your initial word or phrase and initiate a new chain of associations. Go!
Welcome back after your try at clustering.
Now reread your associations and add a star next to any items that seem important, intriguing, puzzling, disturbing, or otherwise noteworthy. Some items might prompt a “bing” or cause a lurch in your stomach or unleash a flood of memory images. Go ahead and mark those items now.
As with freewriting, you can do this in three rounds, using any starred item as your starting point for the second and third rounds. Starring items that seem to carry some power, promise, or significant charge for you helps turn clustering from a parlor game into a powerful idea-gathering tool.
Some people find that just after clustering, they’re able to write with more ease and flow. Other people find clustering helps them generate ideas and images, describe people, places, or situations, stimulate richer memories or see hidden aspects of a problem. I use it to come up with ingredients for book or article titles.
In the next lesson, we’ll discuss brainstorming, the third writing exercise.