“I want to do this right!” says the student, the blank paper staring at her asking for words. Any words. The right words! “Well,” the academic support instructor says, smiling, “there’s more than one way to brainstorm ideas.”

“Really?” the writer asks, hopeful. “I thought that I had to do it just one way. You know, like….” Her voice trails off.

“If you want to generate ideas, which is called brainstorming, there’s lots of ways to do this.”

“Cool! Like what?”

“You can make lists, or draw clusters, or make maps.”

“What’s a cluster?”

“It’s when you take your topic, say, it’s ‘dreams,’ and you write this word in the center of the blank sheet of paper and then just free associate from it. Like, when I say, ‘dreams,’ what pops into your mind?”

“Ocean, purple, dogs?” suggests the writer.

The instructor writes these words on the page and then draws circles around them. “Then you can go deeper. For instance, now free associate from the word, ‘ocean.’ When I say, ‘ocean’ what comes to mind?”

“Nature. Waves. Power. Mystery.”

“Yes!” The instructor draws more circles, offshoots from the word ‘ocean’. “See how much you’ve generated just by association?”

“Yeah…” The writer smiles. “What else can I do?”
“You can do something called ‘freewriting.”

“What’s that?”

“This is when you take your topic and just write whatever comes to mind without editing, crossing out, or worrying about whether it makes sense or not. You can time yourself for 5 or 10 minutes and just keep writing till the time is up. Then you can go back over your freewrite and circle any ‘nuggets’ or hot spots and do another freewrite from this.”

“I like that idea.”

“Yes, it’s a fun one. There’s also asking yourself reporter questions, like who, what, where, how and why. These last two help to facilitate analysis.”

The writer nods, encouraged.
“Finally, just coming in and talking with one of us here at the writing center like you’re doing today is often the best way to generate ideas, or get ‘unstuck’. Why don’t you just tell me a bit about your topic and I’ll take notes while you talk?”


The writer starts to talk and as she talks more and more ideas begin to flow. The academic support instructor takes notes, and offers encouragement. After 30 minutes, this ‘talking’ has generated more than enough ideas for the writer to start her paper.

“Wow!” the writer grins now, “This talking with you today has been super helpful. Thanks!”

“My pleasure!” the instructor smiles. “That’s what the writing center is here for. Come visit us again!”

by the JFKU Writing Center