Smarthinking Writer's Handbook

Using Invention Methods

Chapter 2: Section 2, Lesson 2

Most people know what it’s like to feel out of their element, to be out of place or at a loss for words in an awkward situation. In those instances, sometimes the best option is to push aside the awkwardness and just jump right in. For instance, walk up to a group of people and say “Hi.” Dance and have fun at a wedding. Go out with friends and suggest a new restaurant. What’s the worst that could happen? More than likely, everyone will have a great time.

Writing is a little like that sometimes. It feels awkward because it makes you plunge into the unknown, especially if you have no idea what to write about. However, awkward moments can be productive moments. Using various invention methods can get you past the awkward stage and on to freely flowing ideas and strong writing.

Brainstorming taps into aspects of creative thinking that writers too often push aside. It may feel natural to censor or edit as you write, but brainstorming relies on a different assumption—silly ideas often lead to good and interesting ideas.

The point of brainstorming is to generate as many creative ideas as possible in order to come away with one (or more) really useful idea in the end. Think fast and keep ideas short. You can always flesh out details later. Also, know that every idea is a good idea when you brainstorm, even those that might initially strike you as silly or outrageous. Withhold your judgment until later stages of the process. That way, you can focus on writing unfamiliar or new points—they are just what you want!

While there are various brainstorming techniques, they usually involve the same basic process: the use of free association, or the spontaneous flow of ideas. The trick is to let your thoughts run their own course in order to spark new and interesting ideas and images. You can brainstorm on your own or in a group. Here are a few possibilities:

Timed Brainstorming

  • Open a new document (or get a blank sheet of paper).
  • Set a time limit for how long you’re going to brainstorm. If you’re new to this, consider a fifteen-minute session. You might set a timer to go off after fifteen minutes or use a fifteen minute segment of music. When the music stops, you know the session is done.
  • For the full fifteen minutes, write down ideas as they come to you. Don’t censor, edit, or correct spelling. It doesn’t matter what you write so much as that you write. Let your thoughts flow, and, as they flow, write them on that document or paper.
  • If you reach the end of your set time and find that you’re still on a roll, you can always continue. But, in general, you’ll come to a point where stepping back and evaluating the ideas you’ve written seems right. (Remember: you can always begin another session when you’re ready.)

Free Association

  • Write down the basic issue or idea you want to address. For instance, you might start by paraphrasing the assignment or paper topic.
  • Jot down thoughts quickly. Write down whatever comes to mind related to your assignment or topic. You do not need to use complete sentences to record your thoughts. The key is to come up with ideas and simply record them.
  • Try different patterns for recording ideas. You might jot down ideas by beginning at the top and continuing down the page as thoughts come up. You could also begin in the middle and develop different clusters of associated ideas. Don't feel limited to words and phrases—use drawings or graphics if they help you develop and remember new ideas.

Evaluating and Sorting
After you’ve timed yourself or used free association, you’ll want to take some time to sit back and review your ideas. You probably came up with some new and interesting options. Add some notations to these thoughts: circle or highlight points that seem worth keeping, cross out or delete ideas that seem like dead ends, draw lines between points that connect, move ideas around to see new juxtapositions and relationships among different points, and/or add new ideas as they occur to you.

Creating a Mind Map
When you map an essay plan, you use an invention method that lets you look at the relationships between the things you already know but haven't quite connected. You may not even know your exact topic when you start, but as you find connections, the topic will reveal itself. This method is great for narrative, descriptive, and definition assignments. One thing to have in mind is that there’s no right or wrong way to create a map. It’s a visual that really only needs to make sense to you.

For example, consider how you might map an extended definition essay of a concept. If the concept is “love,” you could start in the center of a clean page by drawing a large circle. In the center, write the topic, Love. From there, fill up the circle with any number of concepts you can think of that are related to love, such as feeling, action, relationship, emotion, gift, longing, etc. Once the circle is full of concepts, try fitting them into categories. How many relate to feelings? How many talk about actions? How many focus on relationships? You might use three colors at this point, underlining or circling each concept based on its category—blue for feelings, red for actions, and green for relationships. Anything underlined in blue could become a paragraph on feelings. Likewise, those concepts underlined in red would help create a paragraph on actions, and those in green would meld into one on relationships. From there, feel free to keep going. The more details that emerge as the map expands, the more material you’ll have for your paper. The goal for this essay is to identify an overarching definition based on all of these points. You could organize your definition of love as it pertains to each category or even to the three to four actions that people do to show love.

Clustering is a way to organize ideas—first to find similarities and secondly to make connections. It’s a way of working through ideas to categorize them. From there, you can step back and create a thesis. You can use clustering for any kind of essay, but it works very well with arguments.

For example, an instructor has asked for an argument paper on a local topic. You decide to write about supporting local farmers over big grocery stores. To invent by clustering, follow these steps:

  • grab a blank sheet of paper or open a new document
  • make a small circle in the middle and write “support local farmers” on it
  • draw lines pointing outward from the circle—as many as you need for the ideas that come up
  • at the ends of the lines, write reasons for supporting local farmers over shopping at grocery stores
  • extend those reasons by adding details around them that will further support your argument
  • use arrows to show which details connect back to the argument
  • sort each reason based on those which include the strongest details with clear connections to the argument
  • keep what’s strong and clear and use it to begin to form an outline

There is no one “right” way to keep a journal, so be sure to experiment a little to find the journaling technique that‘s most useful to you. The basic idea of journaling is to keep a regular record of your thoughts, reactions, and ideas so that you can use them when it's time to sit down and write an essay.

For example, you’ve been asked to write an essay about a book or movie. You're not sure how to get started, and you want to find a way to get your ideas down. Creating a journal entry will help. Your journal might consist of notes on a movie you saw last Saturday, such as plot points you want to remember, but you could also be more open, writing down emotional reactions to certain scenes. In this case, try splitting the pages in your journal into two columns, one for Notes on the Movie and another for Thoughts on the Movie. In the left column, write down all of the details from the movie that you could use as examples of support. In the right, jot down how you felt about each detail, whether it was an example of a character’s action, the cinematography, or the outcome.

When you finish, review your journal and begin putting an essay together. The Notes column will have quotations or references to important moments in the movie. The Thoughts column will help you understand your overall opinion of the movie and what you think the director was trying to accomplish.

If journaling sounds like it could be a useful strategy, try getting into the habit of writing daily. Keep notes on whatever you read, watch, or discuss for your class. The more you write, the easier it will be to keep writing when it's time to compose an essay!

Like journaling, freewriting is a way to get your ideas flowing without worrying about thesis, organization, tone, and so on. You’ll be able to more easily access your best ideas while you’re actually writing.

Freewriting is the process of writing without stopping. Don't stop to think of the right word. Don't stop to think of what you should say next. Just write and write and don't stop. Try to either fill a page or write for 5 minutes without picking up your pen or lifting your fingers from the keyboard. Of course, feel free to develop your own guidelines depending on what works best for you.

Much of what you write may be too random or freeform to include in an essay or writing project. Usually, though, writers will find that after they've spent part of the page (or a few minutes) writing down ideas and thoughts, they begin to get a better sense of where the writing can go, what ideas might be interesting to explore, and how those ideas could be communicated to an audience.

Consider this example of freewriting from a student who has to write a narrative essay about a significant experience from his past. He can't think of a strong topic, so he writes:

Okay here goes I don't really have any idea what I'm going to write about and in fact I'm not sure anything that significant ever happened to me anyway. When I was 2 I fell down the stairs and broke my arm, but I don't really remember that very well and I'm not sure how "significant" it was anyway. My parents moved to Colorado when I was 15, which I hated because I had to change high schools. I met Bernie there, who I'm not really in touch with that much anymore. We just started college, but he's in Minnesota and I'm still here in Denver. Bernie and I used to get into a lot of trouble together, but we had a lot of fun too. We email now and then, but it's not like seeing him all the time in the halls at high school. The guys in my dorm seem all right, but I can't tell yet if I'm really going to get along with any of them.

In this example, the student wrote without looking back; he didn't even stop to correct spelling mistakes. While he may not have any sentences that will make it into a final draft, he has come a long way toward finding a topic. Near the end of this short freewriting exercise, he is writing about the difficulty of making friends in college, and the significance of losing friends from high school. If he decides he doesn’t want to write about this topic, he could try freewriting again to see if any other topics come to mind.

Think About It

  • Which invention method will work best for your current assignment?
  • Which invented ideas will have the strongest connections, details, or support?
  • Which topic seems to be the one you’ll have the most to write about?

Trying out and using the various invention methods described above can jumpstart just about any type of essay. Sitting down to write by inventing can make the writing process a lot more relaxed and creative. Have fun with it!