Discover Ideas Through Brainstorming

Use brainstorming to define a problem, find a solution

Colleagues working together on a project
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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. Business Dictionary says that brainstorming is the

"process for generating creative ideas and solutions through intensive and freewheeling group discussion. Every participant is encouraged to think aloud and suggest as many ideas as possible, no matter how seemingly outlandish or bizarre."

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. In writing, brainstorming aims not just to think of topics to write about but to allow a group to problem-solve when a writer in the group is, essentially, suffering from writer's block.

Theory and Rules of Brainstorming

Alex Osborn, an early proponent of brainstorming, explained the process in his 1953 book "Applied Imagination: Principles and Practices of Creative Thinking" 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, includes some or all of these phases:

  • Orientation: pointing up the problem
  • Preparation: gathering pertinent data
  • Analysis: breaking down the relevant material
  • Hypothesis: piling up alternatives by way of ideas
  • Incubation: letting up, to invite illumination
  • Synthesis: putting the pieces together
  • Verification: judging the resultant ideas

Osborne established four basic rules for brainstorming:

  1. Criticism is ruled out. Adverse judgment of ideas must be withheld until later.
  2. Freewheeling is encouraged. The wilder the idea, the better.
  3. Quantity is the goal. The greater the number of ideas, the more likely it is that useful ideas will result.
  4. 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.

Analysis, discussion, or criticism of the aired ideas is allowed only when the brainstorming session is over and evaluation session begins. Whether in a  classroom, business meeting, or composition brainstorming session, you seek ideas—no matter how wild. Only after the brainstorming session is over, or perhaps at the end of it, do you start to cull the good (and workable) ideas from the bad.

Brainstorming Strategies

Brainstorming strategies are many and varied, but they can be grouped into the following basic areas, as described by The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill:

  • Cubing: This strategy enables you to consider your topic from six different directions, just as in a cube, which is six-sided. In cubing, you take an idea and describe it, compare it, associate it, analyze it, apply it, and argue for and against it.
  • Freewriting: When you freewrite, you let your thoughts flow freely, putting pen to paper (or dry erase pen on a whiteboard) and writing down whatever comes to your mind, or to the group members' minds.
  • Listing: In this technique, also called bulleting, you jot down lists of words or phrases under a particular topic.
  • Mapping: With mapping, you list a lot of different terms and phrases that jut out from the main topic. This method is also called webbing because you end up with something that looks like a spider web with your brainstormed ideas branching out from the main topic in the center.
  • Researching: Also called the journalistic method, with this technique, you use the “big six” questions that journalists rely on to research a story: who, what, when, where, why, and how. You and your group then take a few minutes to research the answers to these questions if needed or simply discuss the answers if group members know the information. 

    Methods and Observations

    Some theorists say that brainstorming does not work. Debate and criticism, far from impeding the search for ideas or efforts to solve a problem, actually stimulate discussion and problem-solving, says Jonah Lehrer, in a 2012 article "Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth" published in the New Yorker. Lehrer notes:

    "Dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints."

    But that's where the teacher or facilitator plays an important role. While she doesn't criticize ideas, and discourages others from doing so, the teacher or facilitator does prompt and probe, as Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock write in their book, "Teaching ESL Composition: Purpose, Process." The facilitator asks

    "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."

    Far from sitting back and simply writing thin, feel-good ideas on the board or paper, the facilitator nudges participants to think about and enhance their thoughts so that they will be more useful. It's also important to note that brainstorming is just a first step in generating an interesting and well-thought-out essay, with ideas that "go beyond the superficial," says Irene L. Clark in "Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing." Clark says that 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."

    So think of brainstorming as a first step to help get your creative juices flowing, either on your own or preferably with the help of a group of collaborators. Then revise the ideas from a list or web to create an outline for a powerful and well-thought-out paper.