Ideas for Generating and Refining Paper Toics

Prewriting Activities

What is Prewriting (Brainstorming)?

Prewriting activities help you generate and refine paper-topic ideas.  Most writers begin with only a vague or superficial idea of what they want to write about.  Prewriting helps you develop your topic by reminding you of what you already know, clarifying what you have yet to learn, and discovering which dimensions of the subject have the greatest “emotional heat” for you. 
There are a wide variety of prewriting activities that can help you move forward from your first-impulse writing ideas to a well-defined topic that addresses the requirements of the assignment, audience need, and appropriately assesses the scope of coverage.  The most common of these are Clustering, Cubing, Dialoguing, Dramatizing, Free-writing, Listing, Matrixing, Outlining, and Topical Invention.  These activities can be combined and customized to fit your personal working style and the needs of the assignment.  Links to sites that explain each of these brainstorming activities in greater detail appear at the bottom of this page.

Prewriting in this class

I urge you to read about and experiment with various prewriting techniques to see which one(s) work best for you.  However, in class, we will combine Free-Writing and cubing to generate initial ideas and to explore one of them in depth.  You’ll need a couple of writing implements (at least two in case one croaks) and a notebook on the days we brainstorm in class.

What is Free-Writing?

Free-writing asks you to write informally on a focus area for a specified amount of time.  We will follow this procedure when you free-write in class:
  • You’ll write down your most promising topic idea at the top of a blank page.
  • I’ll say, “begin,” and you will write without pausing for any reason for 5 minutes; I’ll keep track of the time.  It is important that—no matter what—you keep writing during this time.  Don’t stop to think of the right word, don’t go back and fiddle with punctuation, spelling, or phrasing.  Just keep writing.  If  you get stuck for a second, just write the words “I’m stuck” over and over until new words come. 
  • After time is up, you’ll reread what you’ve written and look for areas where the ideas seemed to flow most freely and for connection between ideas.  Draw circles, sketch arrows, and make written comments in the margins to highlight anything that seems important at this stage.  See if there are sentences and phrases that you might want to use in your first draft.
  • You’ll restate your topic in sentence form, revising and refining it based on what your free-writing suggests to you. 
This activity helps you turn off the critical mind that second-guesses and edits everything you write, stimulating instead your memory and imagination through free association.

What is Cubing?

Inspired by the six-sided geometric figure, cubing asks you to imagine your topic idea as a six-sided object and then to examine all of its sides.  The six perspectives from which to view your topic are variously described in various handbooks and around the Web, but in this class we’ll utilize the six questions that investigative reporters ask when they are researching and writing new reports: i.e. who, what, when, where, why, and how. 
As in Free-Writing, cubing is a timed writing activity requiring functional writing implements and plenty of paper.  We’ll follow this procedure:
Just as in Free-Writing, I’ll keep track of the time, announcing when to begin and end.  You’ll write without pausing, considering your topic from each perspective in turn.  We’ll take a short break between writing periods to give you a chance to rest your hands and clear your minds.  Then we’ll move on to the next question and so on until we’ve “cubed” your topic.
When you’ve finished, you’ll have at least 6 additional pages of written thought to reread and analyze.  As in Free-Writing, you’ll search this material for places where the writing seemed to flow easily, and for insights, connections, phrases, and sentences that you might be able to use in your first draft. 
Since your ultimate task is to explain thoroughly a thing, or issue, or person, or event, or problem, you should also begin a list of questions that you can’t currently answer about your subject.  Generating and then answering these questions will insure that your final paper anticipates questions that your audience (i.e. your classmates and I) are likely to have about your subject.  It will also help you to focus your research, saving you time in the library and on the Web.
Below are suggestions for addressing your topic idea from the perspective of each of the journalistic questions.
  • Who?  Write all you know or can guess about the “Who” of your topic.  For example, if your topic is a person or a group of people, who is your topic?  (List all the biographical details you know or think you know).  If your topic is an invention, who invented it?  Your topic must affect people in some way.  So, who uses it?  Who is involved with it?  Who causes it?  Who is effected by it?  Who do you know that is in some way affected by, involved with, for or against your subject?  Who did you hear about it from?  Who is likely to care about it?
  • What?  What is your topic?  What does it look like?  (Be detailed here: color, shape, size, texture, odor, taste, weight, etc.)  What parts, issues, or components does your topic have?  What other things, issues, persons, events, problems, places are related to or similar to your topic?  If your topic is an object or invention, what uses does it have—or might it have?  If your topic is an issue, what arguments are made for and against it?  If your topic is a problem of some kind, what are its causes and effects?  What defines or distinguishes your topic?  What interests you about it?  What connection do you have with your topic?
  • When?  When was your topic invented, discovered, or first experienced? When did it (or when will it) die out, disappear, or wane?  What are the details of its history?  When have you had personal experience with or recognized the effects of or heard about your topic?
  • Where?  Where does your topic exists (e.g. country, region, part of the body, etc.)?  Describe all you know of the place(s) in which your topic is found.  Where were you when you first became aware of this subject (describe all scenes in as much detail as possible, considering colors, objects in view, temperature, sounds, tastes, and other sensations)?
  • Why?  Why does your topic exist?  Describe the forces, needs, and/or impulses that gave rise to your subject.  If there’s conflict surrounding your subject, discuss why there’s a disagreement.  If your topic is an invention, describe what motivated this invention.  Why are you considering this topic?  Why are you interested?
  • How?  How does your topic work?  How is it made? If your topic is a process, how does it begin, what happens next, how does it end?  If your topic is a person, how does that person behave or work that distinguishes him or her from most others?  If your topic is an issue, how are people affected by it?  How are the various issues and/or component parts of your topic related to one another?  How are those issues and/or component parts related to other issues and parts (see Comparison above)?  How do you feel about your topic?  How does it affect you?
As you approach your subject from each of these angles, push yourself for details of all kinds.  Push your memory, your imagination, and your critical faculties to the utmost—and then just a little farther.  The more detailed and thoughtful your response, the more likely it is to help you clarify the issue that you want to include in your paper and that you need to focus on during your research.
Detail is everything.

How do I come up with topic ideas?

Obviously, to engage in the in-class prewriting activities discussed above, you’ll need to have a topic when you walk into class. But with literally millions of choices available, how to pick just one? There are all kinds of ways to generate topic ideas.  In fact, one can use Free-Writing to generate the ideas that one will make the focus of a later Free-Writing session.  Set a timer, then write as quickly and furiously as you can about any idea that pops into your head until time is up.  Let free-association take you from one word phrase to the next to the next, until you’ve generated a long list.  Reread your list, circling the ideas that have some emotional energy for you.
Or, if you’d prefer a more deliberate approach, investigating the contents of any of the following could also generate topic ideas:
  • magazines/newspapers/periodicals/CD-ROM
  • conduct an interview with someone expert in a topic that interests you
  • media—radio, tv, internet
  • personal experience
  • film—movies and documentaries
  • music
  • visual art - observing or creating
  • your dreams
  • your memories
  • personal interest inventories (list the things that interest you)
  • class interest inventory (list the kinds of courses that might interest you)

Web Resources on Brainstorming

The Cache, Tracy Duckart’s Instructional Website
A beautifully designed site that takes a how-to approach to all kinds of brainstorming techniques.
Study Guides & Strategies (Joe Landsberger)
Succinct instructions for Focused Free-Writing, Brainstorming , Mind Mapping, and Listing and Outlining.  Includes a link to additional information on each.
A site filled with dozens of useful brainstorming exercises. Features pdf worksheets, video tutorials, and basic descriptions of a wide variety of pre-writing exercises designed to generate topics.