Stop fighting yourself on writing: try one of these 4 strategies for coming up with ideas

Have you ever struggled to open a jar? Once you tried using all your strength, did you change tactics? Using a towel to help you get more traction? Running the lid under hot water? Banging the lid against the counter? Jamming a butter knife under it?

With a jar, it's easy to remember that once you try your hardest one way, it's time to try achieving your goal in a different way! 

But with writing, that tip can be a bit harder to put into practice. Your mind is like a jar full of ideas, but sometimes it's exasperating to try to figure out how to open it! 

If you've been trying to plan an essay and find you're going nowhere fast, pause and regroup. It's time to change your approach. 

Here are my top four strategies for coming up with a great idea to write about.

Tip 1: Interview Yourself

Bring all your ideas to the surface by asking yourself some open-ended questions and giving yourself a chance to think. Here are the questions I use. You can add your own as well. 

  1. What do I know about this topic already?
  2. What questions do I have about this topic?
  3. What does this topic remind me of? What connections am I making to other topics I have learned about?
  4. Which aspect of this topic is most interesting to me?
  5. What question/comment have I been meaning to ask/make in class?
  6. What haven’t we talked about in class?
  7. What’s a new approach to this topic? What’s my unique perspective?

Tip 2: Think from the Bottom Up

Begin with the facts and work your way up to big ideas. 

  1. Set a timer for two to five minutes and don’t stop writing until the timer stops.  Write out all of the people, places, events, battles, inventions, treaties, laws, speeches, weapons, characters, plot developments, lines of dialogue, actions, etc. that you can think of!  
  2. Once you have a list of these details, group them into categories using color-coding or physical rearrangement.  
  3. Name the categories. Depending on your topic, you might have categories such as "effects on art,"political causes," "naive narrator," or "use of imagery."
  4. Choose the three strongest categories or the ones that have the the best details. Add more details to these so that you have at least three per category.

Tip 3: Think from the Top Down

  1. Set a timer for two to five minutes and don’t stop writing until the timer stops.  Write out all of the concepts you can think of that are related to the topic. For example, if you're writing about a work of literature, you might write "symbols," "loneliness," "prejudice," "imagery," or "setting." If you're writing an expository essay, you might write "causes," "effects," or "similarities between (A) and (B)." On the other hand, you might come up with categories, such as "politics," "social equity," "education," "safety," "health," "ecology," or "scientific innovation."  
  2. Reset the timer for two to five minutes and fill in as many details as you can for each category.
  3. Choose the three strongest categories or the ones that have the the best details. Add more details to these so that you have at least three per category.

Tip 4: Freewrite

  1. Without a plan, just begin writing in complete sentences in response to the prompt. Turn off your thinking about grammar, spelling, paragraphs, and main ideas--just write whatever comes to mind about the topic. This will clear your pipes and get you to a deeper level of thinking.
  2. Keep writing until your ideas run completely dry, or for 10 minutes, whichever comes first.
  3. Read back over your freewrite and highlight any “treasure”--ideas that really speak to you and that you’d like to develop.
  4. Look for connections. Color-code related ideas and create a key.  For example, purple is everything related to Miss Havisham’s instability; or green is all the material related to economic changes following World War II.  

Let me know what works for you!

  • What's your favorite strategy for unlocking your ideas? 
  • Where do you get stuck?