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Brainstorming Basics

March 3, 2009

For writers always trying to squeak in a few extra minutes for writing it may seem counter-intuitive to say that the best way to develop an idea is to stop thinking about it. But at least for this author it’s true.

Very rarely has an idea that I truly loved come from the conscious act of trying to dream up something to write about. The majority of the time the ideas that are captivating come, not from out of nowhere, but from the periphery of my consciousness…an offshoot of another idea or a random combination of ideas that have rattled around, unused, in my head for months or even years.

Unfortunately, most writers have never been taught how to brainstorm. I graduated from college with a degree in advertising. I’ve never used the degree professionally, but it was the heavy instruction in different styles of writing that stoked my passion for writing.

And in the first week of Copywriting class we got instruction in how to brainstorm. It was drilled into our heads that there are no bad ideas…just ideas you may not want to pursue. But the act of writing down all your ideas, even the lesser ones, and keeping them close by allows your subconscious to keep things simmering.

So for all of you who never learned the proper way to brainstorm ideas, here are some tips:

  • There are no bad ideas. You’ll get farther, faster if you stop telling yourself your ideas are bad.
  • Write down ideas no matter how complete they are. Even if it’s just a sentence fragment.
  • Write it all down. Or record it, or something similar.
  • Every once in a while, review the bits and pieces you’ve jotted down.
  • Use cluster diagrams to link similar ideas (write a main idea in the center of the page, then write related idea around it in a cluster, then connect things that go together with lines; you’ll quickly identify the parts that don’t quite fit).
  • No idea is too small. Somewhere in the back of my mind is a story about the dual meaning of the word spell (the correct use of letters, and the use of magic).
  • Don’t give up on ideas. What does keeping an idea around for a decade really cost you? A small scrap of paper, and the time it takes to reread it once a month?
  • Steal freely and unashamedly from others. Both personal and famous. Of course you won’t be able to use their ideas directly, but combined with some of your ideas you never know what it may spark.
  • Have fun with it. Who is going to see all this aside from you? There is no need for decorum.

So what about you? Do you have any advice to add?

  1. March 3, 2009 7:12 am

    I tell my students to never delete anything they’ve written, but to copy and paste what they want to delete, and put it at the bottom of the document, just in case they want to go back to it later.

  2. March 3, 2009 5:08 pm

    That is so true about ideas never coming from the conscious act of trying to find ideas. They always come to me at the most random of times.

    I tend to jot down my ideas, and even the act of writing it down manages to keep it there. Like in a socialist talk, someone mentioned the unemployed in Japan have started to live under highway overpasses because of the recession. Bang! I saw the scene so clearly, wrote it down, and it’s been floating in my head ever since.

  3. March 4, 2009 6:44 am

    I have to admit to being lax in writing things down – I keep them filed away in my head where the vibrant ones are kept and the less shiny ones tend to wander off and get lost in the darker corners of my mind.

    What working with Paul and Annie on Captain Juan has taught me, is even the most far fetched idea, or strangest character has their place .. and even if you dont know it at the time – it will be revealed later. What started off as a whole heap of different stories, unrelated characters etc – has become interwoven into a story where you couldn’t ever imagine being without X character or Y plot line.

    And I agree – that there are no bad ideas – I treat ‘bad ideas’ like friends that I haven’t quite got to know yet. Some ideas (like friends) you hit it off immediately – like long lost friends, while other’s it take time to warm to, but there is no less a wonderful friendship there over time.

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