Dr. Judith M. Newman

Invention Techniques

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 entire duration
  • 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 except that
    1. you have to think (don't groan) and
    2. 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 page.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Diagramming
    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 that?"

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 how:

  • What am I writing about? (topic)
  • What am I trying to say about my topic? (controlling idea)
  • Why am I writing about my topic? (purpose)
  • Why should my reader(s) be interested in my controlling idea? (audience)
  • 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 forces clarity.

Reading Like A Writer

Not sure how you want to tackle a particular writing task?

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 write.