Initiating and Sustaining Composing
There are probably an infinite number of invention
techniques; some popular ones are described below.
Read about each one to see which works for you. Experiment
and try to have some fun.
- Set a timer for five to ten minutes (you can
always keep going after the beeper's gone off but
an initial time limit is great for keeping you focused)
- Look at the topic and mull it over, roll it over
your tongue, inhale it, let it bounce around the
neural pathways of your brain for a second or two
- Now ready? set? write! and don't stop! Keep your
fingers typing or your pen moving on paper for the
- Get it all out; a sort of intellectual diarrhea
or stream-of-consciousness writing where you write
what you think as you're thinking it
- Don't worry about grammar, spelling, or forming
sentences. Some of it won't make sense and that's
okay. If you find yourself drawing a blank at some
point, then just write, "I'm drawing a blank" to
keep the flow going or try and articulate why you
think you can't get very far with the subject
- There are no rules for this idea-generation technique
- you have to think (don't groan) and
- you can't censor yourself or read over
what you've done until the timer has sounded
(if you're doing this on a computer, a neat
trick is to darken the screen to prevent this
kind of senseless cheating)
- BZZZZTTTT! Time's up: now you can finally look
over your stuff. Freewriting is great because sometimes
you'll find you'll be able to lift off entire sections
and use them in your first draft
This is quite similar to freewriting but the organization—the
way you jot down ideas—is a bit different. Instead
of an endless, non-punctuated, free-flowing paragraph,
you only note down key words or short phrases on a
Set a timer, take a deep breath, and go crazy. If
you get stuck, look at one of the ideas you’ve
already written down and see if they don’t trigger
something new. Assume nothing is self-explanatory—at
this stage stating the obvious is the best way to
tap into original territory.
When you're done, use your word processor's cut
and paste features (or arrows or color coding for
you paper planners out there) to re-organize your
terms and find relationships and common threads that
might form subheadings.
Two ways to approach brainstorming:
- List Making
Here you simply jot down a stream of words or thoughts in
a list format. There are no "wrong" thoughts
to be had here. Try to limit the thoughts to a certain
length. Also, try to commit to either a time or page goal—write
three pages or write for five minutes, no more, no less.
Great for people who work visually, diagramming can be a
helpful way to provide structure to papers. Ignore the
top to bottom, left to write motion of writing (or right
to left, as the case may be) and simply write in a free
fashion. Draw circles around your ideas, link them together
using lines. Draw words in unusual shapes and liberally
sprinkle your page with arrows, squares, question marks,
and anything else you think might help represent your
idea in a visual fashion.
The brainstorming process is about more than practicing
writing, you should see certain patterns and questions
begin to emerge. Place your brainstorm writing aside
for a while and then look at it later. You might be
surprised at some of the things you've come up with.
It's common for brainstorming and freewriting practitioners
to wonder aloud, "Could I really have written
Clustering / Webbing / Mapping
Basically the same as brainstorming but you start
with a central word written in the middle of an unlined
piece of paper. As related concepts pop in your head,
you indicate them as branches, arrows, in bubbles,
or however you like to cluster. Some branches will
lead to dead ends, others will flourish. At the end
of a successful cluster session, you'll focus on the
blossoming areas and will even be able to draw arrows
between concepts to show their relationships.
Again, no self-censorship allowed but don't beat
a dead horse either. If one spark dies, return to
the central or other provocative points you have scribbled
in the lower right hand corner and try again.
The general strategy of looking at your topic as
you would a three-dimensional object with many sides.
Sometimes you'll hear it called the “Many Parts
Strategy” because it asks...no, pushes....you
to consider your topic from a minimum of six different
angles or avenues.
An impressive word that basically just means a learning
aid or problem-solving technique that uses "self-education." Self-education
is a bizarre but appropriate concept here because
what you essentially do with any heuristic is interview
yourself, tap into your own wealth of knowledge with
the right drills in the right places, as it were.
This is done by using questions as prompts.
One popular heuristic is the list of journalistic
5 Ws (and one H!): who, what, when, where, why, and
- What am I writing about? (topic)
- What am I trying to say about my topic? (controlling
- Why am I writing about my topic? (purpose)
- Why should my reader(s) be interested in my controlling
- What knowledge do I have that makes me the right
person to write about this topic?
The Role Of Talk In Writing
All of the above activities can be done orally with
one or more colleagues—nowhere is it cast in
stone that you have to sort out your ideas entirely
on your own.
You can brainstorm or cluster/web/map with other
people. Chart paper is helpful here, but you could
use an electronic notebook to jot down ideas as they
come up in discussion.
Sometimes, before attempting to capture your ideas
in writing, it can be very useful to corner a colleague
and say “Listen to me—“ and quickly
lay out what you’re going to write about and
how you might approach it. Having an audience quickly
Reading Like A Writer
Not sure how you want to tackle a particular writing
Try “Reading Like A Writer”—Find
examples of the kind writing you’re trying to
do. Notice stylistic elements (tone of the writing,
sentence variation, flow of ideas, formatting, etc….)
and try reproducing them in your own writing as you