Generating Ideas

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Generating Ideas
1.Free Writing:
This technique is used when you need to find a topic, when you have no ideas about the selected topic, or when you're blocked by the blank computer screen or a blank sheet of paper.
Directions: Begin with a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen. Write nonstop for 10 minutes. Don't try to make sense, to write complete sentences, or to spell correctly. Let your subconscious mind be in control. Simply keep the pen moving and in contact with the paper for 10 minutes.
When the time is up, look at what you have written and select the word, phrase, or idea that seems somehow significant (although you may not know why or how it is significant). Write a sentence using that word or idea (we call this a "center-of-gravity sentence"). Write that sentence at the top of another blank sheet of paper and do the same process again for 10 minutes. Don't force yourself to write about that center-of-gravity sentence.
Repeat this process 3 or 4 times. Your center-of-gravity sentences might reveal a useful topic, and they should provide some ideas for developing that topic.
Below is a 90-second sample of free writing (the assignment is to write a personal essay). Notice all the characteristics of free writing--ideas are connected by a process of association rather than by logic; there are no formal sentences; ideas run into one another; there are occasional nonsense strings of words; and there are several puns, rhymes, and word plays (the subconscious seems to enjoy them):
My room is cold and I feel like a Tommy gun in a 1940's movie with lots of ammo and no target and fill up the cup and run it over the top you mop and sing a song and think a thought and find me a cabbage patch doll for Xmas or without an X pal buddy friend amigo and all that good stuff stuff stuff is what we're made of buddy good buddy sidekick I get a kick out of my sidekick that's all folks and that's the beginning and horror movies with "the beginning?" at the end instead of "the end" and doesn't anything ever end and is that or that and then some more and road maps are tumbling down the falls of life whatever that is fat cat mat bat and all the ships at sea.
After re-reading the above, the writer might write one or more of the following center-of-gravity sentences:
Although I consider myself to be a peaceful person, I sometimes describe myself in violent terms, comparing myself to such things as Tommy guns.
There are lot of different words to describe a "friend," but each suggests an element of friendship rather than a total friend.
All the bad stuff in life just seems to never end.
2.Directed Free Writing:
This variation of free writing is used when you have a topic but don't have any ideas about it.
Directions: Write the topic at the top of a blank sheet of paper. Then follow the directions above under "Free Writing." Don't try to force your free writing to deal with the topic you've written -- often you'll discover an interesting aspect of the topic or approach to it in free writing that doesn't seem at first glance to be connected to the topic.
Assume that we've been asked to write a personal essay that defines a concept. Based on the free writing above, I've selected friendship:
What is friendship? Pals, buddies, blood brothers, sidekicks? Good times, happiness, shared interests, helping out and being helped during crunch times, knowing you can count on those people, knowing that they'll always be there for you. That's supposed to be friendship. Are friends supposed to admire you? Should they tell you all your good qualities once a week or something? Are you supposed to admire them? What if they do something rotten? Or worse, a lot of rotten things? What if they lie to other people -- can you be friends with a liar? How can you trust what they tell you if they lie to other people? Is trusting friends to tell you the truth even part of the definition of friendship? And what about shared values? What if they cheat and you don't? What if they get drunk every other night or welch on bets or make promises and then break them at the last minute? What if you like to live on the edge and they're very cautious about everything? Can you really be friends then? And what about spending time together? Do you have to spend a certain amount of time with people for them to your friends? Are there different kinds of friends? The people you play sports with or go drinking with are one kind of friend, another kind is the people who will drop what they're doing and drive over and help push your car out of a snow bank or who will lend you some money without asking what you need it for. A third kind are people you confide all your secrets to, the ones whose advice you listen to. Are all these friends or are some of them just acquaintances or sidekicks? And what about women friends? According to When Harry Met Sally, there can't be a friendship between a man and a woman without some romantic interest as well. Is that true? And what if a friend lets you down? How many times does he/she have to let you down before he/she slips to the level of acquaintance? to the level of stranger? Are friends really sidekicks? Was Tonto really the Lone Ranger's friend? It didn't seem like a very equal relationship to me. Do friends have to be equals? And when do you break up a friendship? What are the acceptable causes (and to whom are they acceptable -- is there some panel of judges somewhere making decisions about such things)? And what if a friend starts to ignore you or finds better friends? Is he/she still a friend? Do you want him/her for a friend still? What if a friend uses you to get over some tough times and then leaves you in the lurch? Someone once said that you shouldn't become friends with someone who starts off looking for help or is needy because the relationship will never really be a friendship -- the power will always be lopsided. Is friendship about power relations? Maybe no sidekicks -- just equals.
Based on this directed free writing, we can see several points that could be explored in a draft of the essay: (1) are there different kinds of friends? (2) do people misuse the term friend when they should use acquaintance or some other term? (3) what are some good reasons for forming a friendship? (4) do friends have to be equal? (5) is friendship a power relationship? (6) do friends have to share the same sense of themselves? the same values? the same lifestyle? (7) can men and women be "just friends"?
This technique combines classical invention and free writing and is used when you have a topic but aren't sure what to say about it.
Directions: Write the topic at the top of a blank sheet of paper. Then write responses to each of the following commands. Write nonstop for at least 5 minutes on each command. Do not try to write good prose; do not stop to correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling. A variation: instead of free writing, write at least one full paragraph (4-7 sentences) for each of the commands.
Describe it Compare it

Associate it Tell how it is made

Apply it Argue for or against it
This is a powerful tool for generating ideas and for seeing connections between them once you know what your topic is.
Directions: Write your topic at the top of the page. Then, in single words or short phrases, write in list form everything that comes to mind about the topic. Don't worry about connections or relevance; simply jot down everything that occurs to you. Once you're finished, look at the list carefully. Are there some items that seem to belong together? Group them, and try to assign a name to that group. Feel free to add to the list at any time and eliminate any items that don't fit. Then try to write an assertion about each group.
For example, if the topic were "apple," the list might be:
pie cider

William Tell tarts

the Big Apple apple for the teacher

an apple a day keeps the doctor away

applesauce Johnny Appleseed

Apple computers Adam and Eve

red green

apple butter core

stem Delicious

Granny Smith Cortland

apple juice crab apple

apple jelly Snow White

Groups or Categories:
1.description of the apple (e.g., stem, core, color)'s uses as food (including beverages) sayings (e.g., "apple a day")

4.myths and legends associated with apples (e.g., Snow White)

Each of the above groups (categories) might become a section and/or major idea in the paper.

5.Variation on Listing:
Some writers work in the reverse order; they think of the groupings (or categories) first and then make lists under them. That's fine. In either case, the point is to make a list.
6.Classical Invention:
This approach helps you discover material by asking questions about your topic.
Questions about a physical object:
1.What are its physical characteristics?

2.What sort of structure does it have?

3.What other object is it similar to?

4.How does it differ from things that resemble it?

5.Who or what produced it?

6.Who uses it? For what?

Questions about events:
1.Exactly what happened (who, what, when, where, why, how)?

2.What were its causes?

3.What were its consequences?

4.How is this event like or unlike similar events?

5.To what other events was it connected?

6.How might the event have been altered or avoided?

Questions about abstract concepts:
1.How has the concept or term been defined by others?

2.How do you define the term?

3.What other concepts have been associated with it?

4.In what ways has this concept affected the lives of people?

5.How might the concept be changed to work better?
Questions about propositions:
1.What must be established before readers will believe the proposition?

2.What are the meanings of the key words in the proposition?

3.By what kinds of evidence can the proposition be proved or disproved?

4.What counter-arguments must be confronted and refuted?

5.What are the practical consequences of the proposition?
Note: Any complex topic will require you to begin with one kind of questioning and then move to another. In answering the question about consequences or a proposition, for example, you may need to use an abstract term. Defining that term opens a new field of inquiry.

Similarly, you can mix these various approaches (e.g., begin with Free Writing and then use Classical Invention) or invent your own techniques.

MIT Online Writing and Communication Center

Copyright © 1999, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Reprinted with permission.

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