The third technique for your repertoire, called brainstorming, is much older than both freewriting and clustering. Alex Osborne invented it decades ago as a way for groups in the industry to develop more creative ideas. But you can brainstorm effectively by yourself, and apply the technique in ways that are specific to writing. Here’s how.
To get a taste of brainstorming, choose something that you’ve already written or have to write or would like to write and imagine that you’ve got to come up with a title. If you’ve already chosen a title, imagine that you have to come up with a new title.
Now here are three simple rules for the brainstorming you’re about to do. First, don’t judge your ideas. Write down everything, no matter how wild or obvious or dumb. Second, try to generate as many possibilities as you can. And third, don’t concern yourself with coming up with a complete title. Any word, a rhythm, a sound, a kind of title, a germ of an idea is something to add to your list. Instead of running the clock for this exercise, we’ll give you a target to aim at. Try to brainstorm at least twenty title components, starting now. Go!
Was it easy or difficult for you to generate twenty title elements? Did you find yourself stopping yourself from putting down certain ideas? It’s important not to censor yourself because often, right behind a very dumb idea is one that turns out to be much more appropriate. As with freewriting and clustering, with brainstorming, you’re separating your freewheeling creative capacities from your ability to filter what will work and what won’t and fine-tune those almost-right ideas. Ideas first, editing later. Also, it’s vital to generate a lot of ideas because many people find the best ideas appear rather far down their list.
Consider the title, Tomorrow is Another Day. What eventually appeared in the book was a later idea, Gone With the Wind, a much more powerful title. Similarly, F. Scott Fitzgerald originally titled one of his novels Trimalchio in West Egg. Huh?? We know it by his later idea, The Great Gatsby. Of course, the method doesn’t work only with titles. Use it to generate names for characters, possible beginnings or descriptive metaphors, a list of everything that needs to go into your report or proposal, and so on.
The three rules for brainstorming – don’t judge, go for quantity, and fragments of ideas are fine – make brainstorming more productive than ordinary listmaking.
I’d like to add two suggestions that might make brainstorming an even more effective idea-generation method for you. First, though I said you can do it on your own, you can also enlist the aid of friends and colleagues.
Second, whenever you feel stuck, prompt more ideas by reaching for a dictionary or the Yellow Pages. Open the book to a random page, and allow whatever your finger or eye alights on to suggest further ideas. Let’s suppose you’re writing a travel piece about San Francisco and don’t know how to start. Reach for the dictionary, open it randomly and see the word “smudge.” Now you’ve got the possible opening, “From space, San Francisco would usually look like a white smudge, so often is it covered by fog.” Open it again and you find “constructive” – hmm. And then you write down, “something about some practical-minded outsider suggesting that San Francisco level its hills.”
You can also grab a magazine, pick an article and see how its author started the piece. With a historical fact? Well, any historical facts come to mind about San Francisco?
You can also use brainstorming to help you organize your writing or create an outline. I don’t mean the strict kind of outline which starts, roman numeral one, then Capital A, then Arabic numeral one, small-case A... To construct an informal working outline for a memo, article, novel, report, nonfiction book, Web site or any kind of writing piece, follow these steps. Have some index cards handy, or if you don’t have index cards, fold and tear an 8.5 by 11 page of paper into eight pieces.
First, brainstorm a list of everything that might – this is crucial: “might”, not “should” – go into your memo, article, or whatever. Write each item as you think of it on a separate index card. When you can’t think of any more items that might go into your writing piece, stop. Sort the cards you have into piles, putting similar items together. Ideally, you’ll end up with five to nine piles. Finally, place the piles into some sort of order, what might come first, second, third, and so on in your writing piece. Et voilà, you have a rough outline!
When I do this workshop with participants at seminars, we take a book topic that none of us had previously thought about and together create a whole book outline in only twenty minutes. I use this organizational technique not only for books but almost every time I write an article for publication.
Join me in the next lesson for the next exercise, called focus questions.