The writing process: Generating ideas for your topic

Once you have an idea of your audience and your constraints, you’re ready to get an idea of your essay’s topic. Generating ideas, what ancient Greek rhetoricians called “invention,” is the least methodical and most creative step in writing an essay. There are infinite ways to generate ideas, but no sure-fire way to generate a good one. As such, I can give you some helpful tips and techniques, but here more than anywhere else, you will need to find what works for you.

 Tips for generating ideas for your topic

  • Don’t feel you need to work logically. Good ideas often have strange origins. An apple fell on Isaac Newton’s head, and this gave us the idea of gravity. Mary Shelley had a dream, and this gave us her famous literary classic, Frankenstein. It does not at all matter how you get your idea; what matters is that you somehow find a good one.
  • Work from general to specific. Your first good idea does not have to (and usually will not) take the form of a good thesis statement. Find a topic before you find an argument. Think about your argument in general terms before you try to make it precise.
  • Maintain momentum and don’t be critical. Being critical can hinder your creativity. If you think too much about the flaws in your ideas, you will lose momentum. Creative momentum is important, though; the first ten in a string of related ideas might be garbage, but the eleventh could be pure gold. You never reach the eleventh if you shut down your thought process at the second.
  • Let ideas go. Don’t get too attached to the first appealing idea you find. The idea could work out very well for you, but it just as well might be a dud once you give it some critical thought. Also, thinking about a new idea does not mean abandoning an old one. You can easily come back to any idea.
  • Critique ideas when you find a few appealing. You will have to select only one idea to pursue, eventually, so when you have a few that might work, try to rule out all but one. If you find they’re all bad, start searching for more.
  • Find an idea you will enjoy writing about. A bored writer makes reading a bore. Try to find either a topic that interests you or a way to integrate your interests with your topic. In the worst case scenario, pick the least boring topic of all of the boring topics you’re faced with.
  • Keep a notepad close. Good ideas will cross your mind when you least expect it. When they do, make sure that you can hold onto them. Many people come up with their best ideas just before falling asleep; you might find it useful to keep a notepad by your bed.

Common strategies for generating ideas for your topic

  • Talk it out. Discussing ideas with a friend or colleague often helps you find new avenues to approach the ideas you have and lets you find ideas you’ve not yet considered.
  • Brainstorm. Write down as many ideas as you can and make point form notes on them as you go. When you feel you’ve written down the obvious things that relate to an idea, move on to a new one, or explore a related idea in more depth.
  • Free write. This strategy is similar to brainstorming, but its faster and less reflective. Give yourself a broad topic to write about. Then, on a pad of paper or a word processor, write continuously for two or three minutes. Don’t stop, not even for a moment. Write down anything that comes to mind, no matter how nonsensical it seems, but try to keep the writing somehow related to the topic you began with. If you need to, time yourself to make sure you write for a few minutes straight. When you’ve finished, read through what you’ve written and identify any useful ideas that have come out of the exercise.
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Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master's degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

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