Generating Ideas

Before you can start writing down your ideas in a formal essay you need to first of call come up with them.  Below you will find a number of ways of generating ideas.  Note that, at university, most of what you write about will not come from your head but will rather come from other texts about the subjects on which you will be writing.  Even here, however, you need to generate ideas so that you will know what to research and what particular angle you would like to take on a task.


This is a technique with which you are probably already familiar.  Here you basically set yourself a time limit, such as a minute, and write down as quickly as possible whatever words come into your mind when you think of the subject about which you are writing.  What you write should only be words or possibly short phrases and at this stage you shouldn’t worry whether they are actually relevant or whether you actually know enough to write a decent sentence. The main purpose of brainstorming is to let ideas flow freely without worrying about how much you know or don’t know.

Make Notes

Similar to brainstorming except that these are more structured.  Whatever you write down is organised in some way.  You could make lists or use mind maps and spidergrams.

Speed Writing

Normally when you are writing your essays you are trying to think of what to say and then as you are writing it you are worrying about spelling and grammar. Trying to do too much at once, especially worrying about rules of grammar and spelling, does not help you to be creative. The purpose of speed writing is to get all your ideas down on paper as quickly as possible.  You are completely focussed on the ‘content’ of your writing and don’t worry about mechanical details like grammar and spelling.  In many ways it’s quite similar to brainstorming except that this time instead of just writing words you actually write complete sentences - which don’t need to be correct at this stage.  Note however, that after doing a speed written draft of any work you need to do lots of editing.  Any speed writing that you do should be much longer than your finished product as you will include only your best ideas in your final draft.

Sleep on It!

Writing in an exam situation is quite unusual. Normally you will have many days to do a written assignment. As soon as you are assigned a task you should analyse it, memorise it or write it on a small piece of paper and carry it around with you. When you are sitting on a bus, waiting for a lecture to begin, walking in the street etc. you can be thinking of how you will tackle the task. Carrying a small notebook around with you in which you can jot down ideas may be useful. We solve many of our problems in our sleep by dreaming about them.  You could try thinking about your task while lying in bed about to fall asleep.  You may find that when you wake up in the morning you have found an interesting way of approaching the task you have been assigned. The tasks you will be asked to do at university will require some thought and planning. Many of them will involve you giving a personal response to texts you have read. If you read a task and start writing immediately you may find when you are half way through your essay that you have actually taken the wrong stance and you are trying to prove something that you don’t actually believe.  You will need time to think about a subject before you start writing about it. Although you may not start writing, the day you are assigned a task, you should at least begin thinking about it immediately.

Read ‘round’ the topic

At university whatever you are asked to write about will probably be based on some text you are dealing with in class.  Even if you have already read the text, read it again with the specific task you have been asked to do, in mind.  Also consult other texts e.g. from magazines and encyclopaedias that will have general articles about the topic and they will give you a broader perspective.  If you read such texts actively (questioning them, applying the ideas to your life etc.) as well as ideas you may find in the texts, you will also come up with some of your own.

Use questions

By asking specific questions and then coming up with the answers to them you will gather a lot of information and ideas about your topic. Below you will find 20 questions that you can ask of any subject.  Note that in order to answer the questions you may need to think about how you will interpret them.  Some of the questions can easily be applied to some subjects but it is difficult to see how they can be applied to others. e.g. How can X be interpreted.  If we are writing an essay about ‘pens’ then asking ‘how can pens be interpreted’ may not seem to make sense.  However, by answering such a question we may come up with new and interesting points to make about pens. eg. Pens can be interpreted as instruments for writing on paper that are going out of fashion and don’t have much importance in our lives.  Other people may interpret them as the most important invention in the history of mankind - if the pen had never been invented and we never learned to write, record and share our ideas then as a race we could not have developed as we have.  You may need to be creative and interpret questions in a novel way to apply them to your particular topic. If you are writing an essay about pens, how would you interpret this question?  What type of a person is X?   (e.g. What type of a person uses a pen).

What does X mean?  
How can X be described?       
What are the component parts of X? 
How is X made or done?   
Analysis of Process
How should X be made or done?     
What is the essential function of X?
Analysis of Function
What are the causes of X?     
Analysis of Origins
What are the consequences of X? 
Analysis of outcomes
What are the types of X?  
How does X compare with Y?
What is the present status of X?  
How can X be interpreted?  
What are the facts about X?      
How did X happen?       
What kind of person is X? 
What is my personal response to X?  
What is my memory/personal experience of X?
What is the value of X?   
How can X be summarised? 
What case can be made for or against X?

Click here for a form version of these questions that you can print off and fill in.


With any topic you can approach it from six different angles.  

What is the colour, size, shape, feel, smell, sound of X?
What is X like or unlike?
What does X bring to mind?  What is X similar or dissimilar to?
How is X composed?  What is X part of? What is part of X?
How can X be used?  What can be done with X?
What points can be put for and against X?
What reasons are there for taking a position for or against X?


Talk to other people.  If a whole class of students have to write about the same topic it may be a good idea if some of them get together and discuss the topic.  Hearing other people’s point of view and having to express your own will help you become clear about what you actually believe and don’t believe.  You could also discuss your ideas about the topic with your teacher before you even begin to write.  Ask your parents what they think about the topic you have to write about.  Join a chat room on the internet. Talk to yourself if you can’t find anyone else.

Draw or Look at pictures

If you are a visual learner who is good at drawing you may find drawing pictures more useful than brainstorming with words as described above.  Draw what you feel about the topic and then describe in words what you have drawn.  Alternatively you could simply look at photographs/pictures that others have produced eg. if I had to write about ‘terrorism’, just looking at photographs of the World Trade Centre, after it was attacked, would arouse lots of feelings, thoughts and ideas in me that I could then write down on paper.


This technique will be demonstrated by your teacher.  You basically try to forget everything else and imagine yourself in a particular situation.  eg. again if you are writing about terrorism, you could try to imagine yourself being one of the passengers on one of the planes that has been hijacked and you are about to crash into the World Trade Centre. This visualisation should help you to write about the experience of being a victim of terrorism.

Role Play

Either on your own or with the help of a friend, act out being in a particular situation and be aware of what you are feeling and doing.  Actually role playing a situation will help you focus on details. eg. again writing about terrorism you could play the role of the terrorist while your friend plays the role of the passenger on the plane. Your friend asks you questions like ‘why are you doing this?’. ‘You will die too, what’s so important that you are prepared to die?’ Trying to answer such questions from the point of view of the terrorism will give you valuable insights into what you believe to be the motivation for terrorism.

Copyright - © 2002 David O'Regan - All rights reserved.