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Brainstorming essay topics

When an author feels stuck at the start of their writing process, the problem can often be traced back to a struggle with identifying the focus of the work. For example, when a student gets stuck in starting to write an essay, an overly broad focus or claim is often the culprit (e.g., Royal Roads University is unique). When the author narrows the focus to identify a specific stance on the topic, the focus of the work becomes clearer (e.g., Royal Roads University is unique amongst post-secondary institutions on Vancouver Island because of its history, educational programs, Hatley Park, and diversity of wildlife).

If you’re a student and you’re feeling unsure about a topic, it’s understandable that you would immediately shift from reading the assignment description into doing research. While some preliminary research may be necessary to develop a general understanding, it’s a daunting task to narrow a topic based on general searches that can result in hundreds of thousands of resources. Furthermore, narrowing a topic based on the ideas of other people puts you in a position of having to be an expert on what everyone else thinks, which is impossible. You are, however, the expert on your own ideas, so taking time to sort out preliminary ideas before starting your research puts you in a stronger position to determine the direction of your work.

A good way to identify what you already know is to build in some time for brainstorming between reading the assignment description and immersing yourself in researching your topic. It’s likely that you know more than you think you do, based on your course-related activities (e.g., readings or discussions) and/or your personal and professional experiences. Taking time to think through what you already know gives you the opportunity to identify what interests you about your topic, which may help to identify a focus for the writing. For example, identifying life experiences that are related to the topic will give you a personal connection to the subject matter, and typically that kind of connection makes writing easier. The goal of brainstorming at an early stage of the writing process is to help you identify what you already know without judging the ideas as they emerge. Once you’ve identified your existing knowledge, that information can provide both a starting direction for a preliminary thesis statement as well as point to what information you need to locate when you’re researching the topic.

There’s great information available online about brainstorming strategies (e.g., “Brainstorming” by the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), and the best approach for you will be decided by what feels comfortable. Try to keep the approach simple so your focus is on the ideas versus how you’re recording them. If you watch the “Introduction to Academic Writing” video, and in particular, the “Creating a document plan” section of that video (both available via Academic Writing), you’ll see an example of a brainstorming exercise presented as a mind map.  

As you’re working through a brainstorming exercise, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • What do you already know about the topic? Consider all your experiences relating to your academic experience, as well as your professional and personal experiences.
  • What interests you about the topic? If the answer is “nothing”, keep trying! If there’s flexibility in the assignment instructions, perhaps a different approach to the topic will be more interesting to you. If you’re not sure what is acceptable, please speak with your instructor.
  • As ideas surface, try asking yourself questions to help you think in more detail. Asking “why?”, “what do I mean by that?”, and “why is that important?” can lead to more exploration.

Once you have all your ideas laid out, refer back to the assignment description to see what connections, themes, or topics have emerged from the brainstorming that you could use to refine your topic. For example, numerous ideas might indicate a topic of interest; few ideas could suggest an area for more research.

Brainstorming is a technique that can be used throughout the writing process to explore and refine ideas. If you have any questions about how to approach brainstorming or would like some help with brainstorming topics, please contact the Writing Centre as we’d be pleased to help!

Theresa Bell
Writing Centre Manager

(Originally published in Crossroads June 21, 2018)

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