brainstorming (discovery strategy)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

group brainstorming in an office
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In composition, brainstorming is an invention and discovery strategy in which the writer collaborates with others to explore topics, develop ideas, and/or propose solutions to a problem.

The purpose of a brainstorming session is to work as a group to define a problem and find a plan of action to solve it.

See Methods and Observations below. Also see:

Methods and Observations

The concept of brainstorming was introduced by Alex Osborn in his book Applied Imagination: Principles and Practices of Creative Thinking (1953). Osborn offered a theory of the steps involved in the creative process, describing it as "a stop-and-go, catch-as-catch-can operation--one which can never be exact enough to rate as scientific." The process, he said, usually includes some or all of these phases:

  1. Orientation: Pointing up the problem.
  2. Preparation: Gathering pertinent data.
  3. Analysis: Breaking down the relevant material.
  4. Hypothesis: Piling up alternatives by way of ideas.
  5. Incubation: Letting up, to invite illumination.
  6. Synthesis: Putting the pieces together.
  7. Verification: Judging the resultant ideas.

Osborne established these four basic rules for brainstorming:

  • Criticism is ruled out. Adverse judgment of ideas much be withheld until later.
  • "Free-wheeling" is encouraged. The wilder the idea, the better.
  • Quantity is the goal. The greater the number of ideas, the more likely it is that useful ideas will result.
  • Combination and improvement are sought. "In addition to contributing ideas of their own, participants should suggest how ideas of others can be turned into better ideas; or how two or more ideas can be joined into still another idea" (Osborn, 1953).

    The Limits of Brainstorming

    "Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn't work. . . .

    "[Professor of psychology Charles] Nemeth's studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that [Alex] Osborn thought was most important. As Nesmeth puts it, 'While the instruction "Do not criticize" is often cited as the most important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.' Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth's work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict.

    "According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints."
    (Jonah Lehrer, "Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth." The New Yorker, Jan. 30, 2012)

    The Teacher's Role

    "During classwide and group brainstorming sessions, the teacher assumes the role of facilitator and scribe. That is, he or she prompts and probes by asking questions such as 'What do you mean?' 'Can you give an example?' or 'How are these ideas related?'--recording these ideas on the board, an overhead transparency, or an electronic display.

    . . . The outcomes of a brainstorming session can subsequently be used as a resource for further freewriting, listing, or more structured prewriting activities."
    (Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock, Teaching ESL Composition: Purpose, Process, and Practice, 2nd ed. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005)

    After Brainstorming

    "Brainstorming is usually just the first step in generating an interesting and well-thought out essay, with ideas that go beyond the superficial. A useful invention strategy that follows brainstorming and precedes the drafting of an essay is the Points-to-Make List, which enables a writer to sort and narrow ideas. Although different writers do this in individual ways, most good writers will take time to write down, examine, and revise their ideas in an informal list that is not as rigid as an outline."


    Irene L. Clark, Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing. Routledge, 2002