Brainstorming can be an easy or difficult task depending on your level of excitement about an assignment, your existing knowledge, your timeline, and other factors. While you may feel that a topic is something that floats around until it finally settles into your mind, ready to be written, or that, on the contrary, it is something you chase after but remains out of reach, there are actually many techniques you can practice to pin that topic to the ground.
Where do ideas come from?
Last week, I had an amazing breakthrough in finishing up a rough draft for a short story I was working on. Suddenly all the ideas clogged in my brain flowed freely and found their place on the page. While some may call this kind of writing session “inspired” or picture a writer stopping in the middle of an activity, grabbing a pen and paper, and writing something beautiful and perfect as if playing scribe to an external “muse,” my experience last week came after days of brainstorming and finally free writing.
Paper topics often come the same way. While I can’t deny that there are some unexplainable instances in which ideas just shoot down like lightning, more often than not, it takes intentional brainstorming time to finally capture an idea.
Set a Deadline
In my last blog, I addressed how the best time to start your paper is now. That means that coming up with a topic begins now, and that takes intentional, scheduled time. As I wrote before, you may even decide to make a deadline for yourself for when you will finally choose your topic. In other words, don’t wait for lightning!
Thesis or no Thesis?
It may be that, while brainstorming, your topic and thesis may come to you simultaneously. That’s great! On the other hand, if trying to come up with a thesis around your topic is preventing you from choosing a topic to begin with, set it aside and don’t worry about it for now.
Brainstorming is a fairly nuanced word; it can entail anything from reading, researching, note-taking, or just sitting and thinking about topics. A lot of this depends on what works for you, and that often depends on what kind of paper you are writing.
One method is to simply free-write. This is what I did to unclog my thoughts about the story I was writing. I simply opened a word document and typed away until I had a more solid idea of what to write about. I didn’t stop, even when I had nothing to say but “Anyway” or “I don’t know what to write.” Before, thoughts were flowing in and out of my head, but free writing allowed me to capture those thoughts and process them.
On the other hand, maybe you process better through speaking aloud, so talking into a recording devise would help you accumulate ideas. Maybe you need an audience to receive and give feedback to your ideas. At the Writing Center, we can offer a listening ear.
Try keeping a pen in your hand while reading to underline and take notes. Jot down things even if you don’t know for sure it will be helpful later; it just might! For literary papers, think about questions you have, what the author is trying to say, or what theories may be applied to it. For other papers, think about how the topic might apply to other situations or what you might be able to add to it from your experience, from research, or from further study.
Do some research on your chosen book or field and see if anything jumps out to you. Sometimes seeing what’s already there can help you see what is missing. Think about your paper as a contribution to the discussion.
Questions to get you thinking
- What about this subject or book is interesting to you? Do you have any experience with it now? Will you in the future?
- What in your reading has left you wanting to know more?
- Do you see anything in your readings or lessons that connects with other topics, contexts, or social concerns?
- If you are writing on a novel, what might the writer’s intention be? What symbols do you see? Do you see any loose ends? Any connections?
How do you know it’s a good topic?
Finally, here are some questions to help you discern if your topic is not only good in general but also good for you specifically.
Is it interesting to you?
Maybe you are writing about a story that really moved or angered you, or maybe you are writing about the effects of red40 on children with ADHD because your brother had shown side effects in the past. Whatever it is, your topic should engage you enough that you won’t tire of it after the first page.
Has it been done before?
Some students strive to write something that has never been said before, but that is sometimes a lofty goal, particularly when writing about novels that have been around for centuries. If this is stifling you, remember that this topic hasn’t been covered by YOU and that you have a perspective that no one else has. In your research, you may find yourself putting together pieces of the puzzle that haven’t been linked before.
On the other hand, choosing a topic that has never been addressed before may mean that there is nothing to research, or even that it is invalid. For instance, researching a topic that looked into the probability of apes taking over the world, if anything, might send you to personal blogs or websites with unprovable science. This may be a sign that your topic is improbable.
Is it controversial?
If you are writing an argumentative paper, it is important that your topic have some kind of opposition. If you were to write a paper about why brushing your teeth is good for you, for instance, you would be arguing with no one (or maybe some outliers). But if you wrote your paper arguing brushing your teeth with fluoride may be harmful, or that one should only use a particular brand, then you have an argument and will likely find sources that support opposing sides.
What are others saying?
If you aren’t sure about a topic, ask a friend, a professor, a mentor, or even a tutor at the Writing Center. Note their reactions, their level of interest, and any questions they might have. This will help you know if you are on the right track or if you need to dig a little deeper.