Activities for Exploring Your Ideas

Explore your ideas

This article will offer strategies for writing a first draft: exploring your topic, developing a thesis, and planning a preliminary structure.

These strategies are useful at the beginning of the writing process, but you may also return to them later, especially if you find yourself staring at a blank screen.

Writing is a messy business, and planning, drafting, revising, and designing rarely proceed in a straight line; writers often need to circle back to an earlier activity.

Explore your ideas

The following invention techniques or prewriting activities are designed to help you begin.

Remember that what you write at this stage is for your eyes only — no one will be judging your work.

You can explore ideas in either a print or digital journal, which is simply a place to record your thoughts on a regular basis.

Your class notes constitute a type of academic journal, as do the notes you take on your reading and research.

Activities for Exploring Your Ideas

Review your notes and annotations
Keep a journal
Browse in the library
Search the Internet
Exchange ideas

As you explore, turn off your internal critic, and generate as much material as possible. Later you can select the best ideas from what you produce.

We will witness this process by following the development of student Diane Chen’s composition.

For multilingual writer

Consider exploring your topic using your native language first.

Worries about grammar, spelling, or vocabulary will not interfere with your creative thought. Once you have some ideas, switch to English.


1. Freewriting

To figure out what you are thinking, try freewriting, typically for a limited period of time (five minutes, for example).

Just write whatever occurs to you about a topic. If nothing comes to mind, then write “nothing comes to mind” until you think of something else.

The trick is to keep pushing forward without stopping. Do not worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar rules as you freewrite.

Your objective is to “loosen up” in the same way that a jogger does before a long run.

Once you have some ideas generated, try doing some focused freewriting. Begin with a point or a specific question.

You might explore more deeply an idea or even a conflict that you discovered while freewriting.

The following is a portion of Diane Chen’s freewriting about her photography paper.

I want to talk about what it’s like to look at all these pictures of people suffering, but to also admire how beautifully the photographs have been composed. Those two things feel like they shouldn’t go together. But it’s also what makes the photographs so great — because you’re feeling two different emotions at the same time. It makes it harder to stop looking at what it is he’s trying to show us.

You can see Chen’s ideas beginning to take shape.

She needed several sessions of general freewriting, however, before she was able to reach this point.

Listing idea

2. Listing

Another strategy is to brainstorm by starting with a topic and listing all the words, phrases, images, and ideas that come to mind; again, limiting the time to five minutes or so can “force” ideas.

When you brainstorm in this way, don’t worry about whether the individual thoughts or ideas are “right.” Just get them down on paper or on screen.

Once you have completed your list, go through it looking for patterns and connections.

Highlight or connect related ideas, or group related material together. Move apparently extraneous ideas to the end of the list or to a separate page.

Now zero in on the areas of most interest, and add any new ideas that occur to you. Arrange the items into main points and subpoints if necessary.

Later, this material may form the basis of an outline for your paper.

Here is part of a list that Diane Chen produced for her paper about a photography exhibit.

  • Migrations — still photographs, dynamic subject
  • why migrate / emigrate?
  • my family — hope of a better life
  • fear & doubt in new places; uprooting
  • beautiful photos but horrible reality
  • Sebastião Salgado as photojournalist
  • black & white pictures
  • strong vertical & horizontal lines
  • lighting choices are meaningful

Clustering idea

3. Clustering

Having something written down enables you to look for categories and connections.

Clustering, sometimes called mapping, is a brain-storming technique that generates categories and connections from the beginning.

To make an idea cluster, do the following:

  • Write your topic in the center of a piece of paper, and draw a circle around it.
  • Surround the topic with subtopics that interest you. Circle each, and draw a line from it to the center circle. You may also connect the circles to each other.
  • Brainstorm more ideas. As you do so, connect each one to a subtopic already on the sheet, or make it a new subtopic of its own. As she explored her ideas about the Sebastião Salgado exhibit, Diane Chen prepared the cluster that appears below.
cluster about the Salgado exhibit

Questioning idea

4. Questioning

Asking questions is a good way to explore a topic. The journalist’s five w’s and an h (who? what? where? when? why? and how?) can help you find specific ideas and details.

For example, here are some questions that would apply to the photography exhibit:

Different Questions Lead to Different Answers

Sociology : How do recent immigrants interact with more established immigrants from the same country?

History : How and why has immigration to the United States changed over the past century?

Economics : What effect do immigrants have on the economy of their host country?

  • Who is the photographer, who are his subjects, and who is his audience?
  • What is the photographer’s attitude toward his subjects?
  • Where were these pictures shot and first published?
  • When did these events take place?
  • Why are the people in these pictures migrating?
  • How did I react to these images?

Another technique is to look at a topic dramatically: as an action (what), with actors (who), a scene (where), a time period (when), means (how), and a purpose (why).

Also recall the questions that your professor has asked during class discussion.

Blogging as a Writing Process Tool

A blog provides space for your exploratory notes, functions as a research notebook where you can link your ideas to online sources, and allows you to ask readers questions about issues you encounter in the assignment.

reviewing notes

5. Reviewing your notes and annotations

If your assignment involves reading one or more texts or researching multiple sources, review your notes and annotations.

If you are writing about something you have observed, review your notes and sketches.

These immediate comments and reactions are some of your best sources for ideas. As you review them, look for patterns.

Varieties of Notes

Here are some examples of the different kinds of notes you might take when preparing assignments for courses in two different disciplines:

For a paper on conflict resolution among four-year-olds for a course in human development, you observe and record the play activities of one child during several play periods in a preschool class.

Your careful written observations will help you understand principles in the course text and may later contribute to a case study.

For an article on journalistic styles for a news reporting class, you read an account of the same event in the New York Times, the Arizona Republic, and Salon, annotating each with notes on its style and point of view.

Private Writing in English

Multilingual students can also use a journal to develop fluency in thinking and writing in English.

Keep in mind that no one will be correcting your work, so you can focus on writing as much as possible.

You can also use your journal to collect and comment on idioms and to reflect on your experiences as a multilingual student.

browsing in library

7. Browsing in the library

Your college library is filled with ideas — and it can provide inspiration when you need to come up with your own.

Sometimes it helps to take a break: leave your study carrel, stretch your legs, and browse the bookshelves.

You can also explore online resources via your library’s Web site.

Keep careful track of the sources of compelling ideas so that you can provide proper credit later. Using others’ ideas without acknowledging them is plagiarism.

searching in internet

8. Searching the Internet

Type keywords related to your topic into a search engine such as Google, and visit several sites on the list that results.

When Diane Chen searched Google using the keywords “Salgado” and “migrations,”.


9. Exchanging ideas in person or online

Seek out opportunities to talk about your writing with your classmates, friends, and family:

  • Brainstorm within your peer response group, if your instructor has set up such groups. Come prepared with ideas and information about your topic to get the discussion started.
  • Contact graduate students and professionals with expertise in your discipline, and discuss with them their approaches to writing assignments.
  • Visit your college writing center to discuss your work in progress.

Online tools offer additional opportunities for collaboration. Discuss your assignments by exchanging e-mail.

If your class has a Website, you might exchange ideas in chat rooms. Other options include instant messaging (IM), text messaging, and blogs.

Facebook and Twitter provide additional opportunities to discuss your work with friends.

Keep a list of your interactions so that you can write a note or page of acknowledgment for the help and encouragement you receive.

Exchanging ideas with other writers can help you clarify your thinking on a topic.

assignment topic

For an assignment that you are currently writing or a topic you are interested in, brainstorm by listing, clustering, freewriting, questioning, and searching the Internet or browsing in the library.

Be sure to keep your notes, even if your instructor will not be reading your work.

If possible, exchange ideas with classmates, either in person, online, or by texting.

Write a summary of the invention techniques that worked best for you and why.