Better Ways to Brainstorm


Brainstorm is such a wonderful word. It characterizes the arrival of ideas as a kind of weather, a private tempest of thoughts and possibilities that whirls unpredictably within.

Synapses fire at an accelerated rate, the mind sends up its own lightning, and all ideas that summer in the remote locations of our brains come out to enjoy the view.

I’m pretty sure that’s not actually how the brain works. Still, the search for ideas can certainly leave us feeling isolated in our own turbulent climates. And while the time-honoured tradition of drawing little clouds filled with words may help, there are actually a great many alternatives.

Taking the time to explore one or more of these brainstorming strategies will not only make this next stage of the writing process considerably more efficient, but could also lead your essay in a far more promising direction.


The post-it note approach is used in the private sector when a training manual or some form of documentation needs to be produced quickly.

A subject matter expert and a writer are put in a room and told to capture every task associated with producing the document. Once they have done so, they list all the tasks that they want their readers to be able to perform once they have read the document.

Each task is written on a post-it note and stuck to a wall. Thereafter, the writer and the expert look at the tasks and try to find commonalities among them. They move the notes around, group related items, and then put them in order of importance.


We can all benefit from performing this exercise before we start an essay, entirely because it takes what is otherwise the daunting task of writing a long paper and breaks it down into small, manageable pieces.

Students who take the time to brainstorm before they begin an assignment often end up writing infinitely more thoughtful, original essays.

For example, if you were to write about the history of a local building, some of your tasks as a researcher may be to:

  • Find out when the London Courthouse was built.
  • Describe the exterior of the building in detail.
  • Research gothic architecture in nineteenth-century Canada.
  • Determine who the architect was.
  • Compare the Courthouse to other buildings that were built at the time.
  • Visit the archives to learn more about the building’s original purpose.
  • Tour the Courthouse to get a first-hand look at the building.
  • Search for a compelling historical anecdote that underlines its importance.
  • Ask the librarian for help finding sources on strategies for preserving old buildings.

Having read your essay, you may hope that your reader is able to do the following:

  • Appreciate the historical significance of the building.
  • Be able to describe the exterior of the building.
  • Describe the various ways in which it resembles other buildings from the same period.
  • Understand the best strategy for preserving this particular building, and why it is essential that we do so.

These “learning objectives” double as your goals as a writer.

You’ll notice that each of these sentences begins with a verb; the idea is that you’re giving yourself manageable tasks to perform well before you settle in write a first draft of your essay.

The big thing to remember here is that most successful essays are written 15 minutes at a time. We all live incredibly busy lives, but there’s always 15 minutes in a day to work on a project. Try setting a timer for yourself once a day, and then see how you get along.

When you’re brainstorming a topic, give yourself permission to follow your ideas where they lead you. What may initially feel like a detour could later prove to be very the destination that you were looking for.

“By walking,” Irving Layton writes in one his finest poems, “I found out where I was going.”

When we’re feeling slightly stressed, or especially eager to get a particular project underway, it’s easy to forget that our bodies are much more than just pedestals for our brains.

The next time you have a topic spinning around in your head, find a little time to exercise, whatever that may mean to you. Getting a few minutes of fresh air may (or may not) help you generate new ideas, but at the very least you’ll give your brain a rest,  which is in itself hugely valuable.

It’s remarkable how many good documentaries are now easily accessible online. The National Film Board of Canada alone has a wonderful collection of films, a great many of which are freely available.

All this to say that before you set out in search of scholarly research, don’t hesitate to find out what general knowledge already exists around your topic. This wealth of material can and should include how filmmakers have imagined the issues or ideas that you’re interested in.

Who knows, you may even encounter a concept that really works well in your paper. In which case, documentaries are actually quite easy to cite.

At no other time has it been easier to drop in on a lecture by a prominent philosopher at Harvard, or to hear about a recently discovered manuscript that was previously thought to be destroyed, or even to learn about black holes or the latest theory on the ever expanding universe.

Sometimes, we can’t help but feel as though there are concepts that we need to understand before we start a paper; if that’s the case, chances are you’ll find at least some kind of introduction to it at iTunes U.

Having the chance to listen to a lecture–rather than reading about a subject online–will also give your eyes a much needed break.

Librarians are professional brainstormers: they possess an advanced understanding of how subjects relate to each other, as well as an uncanny ability to come up with synonyms for topics that students commonly pursue.

While it’s true that we most often associate librarians with the research stage of an assignment, keep in mind that they can help you make connections between ideas that may not otherwise seem readily apparent.

When you’re brainstorming a topic, give yourself permission to follow your ideas where they lead you. What may initially feel like a detour could later prove to be very the destination that you were looking for.

Just one caveat: once your essay is underway, falling down rabbit holes–by which I mean pursuing new ideas because of their newness, and because they seem so much more interesting than the one you started with–really isn’t such a good idea.

At this early stage, however, everything is still fair game, so don’t hesitate to entertain multiple perspectives and possibilities at once.

Brainstorming is a stage in the writing process that university students often skip, perhaps in part because professors like myself do so little to stress its value.

What hangs in the balance here in your ability to weigh all possible approaches to a particular topic, and then to pursue the one that will ultimately serve you best.

Taking even just a few minutes to brainstorm a topic before you begin will enable you to anticipate both the advantages and disadvantages of interpreting an idea, an event, a concept or text in a particular way.

In other words, you’ll know what a given topic has in store for you before you start, and you won’t kick yourself later for not coming up with a better idea in the first place.

Students who take the time to brainstorm before they begin an assignment often end up writing infinitely more thoughtful, original essays.

Professors won’t always make a point of mentioning the importance of thoughtfulness and originality when they give you an assignment, but these qualities are nevertheless highly valued all the same.

Watch as Lucy uses to her brainstorming skills to rescue her friend Drew from aliens.