Northcentral University Writing Center

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Writing Center

Brainstorming or Listing


Brainstorming (sometimes called Listing) is the process of throwing all ideas onto a page. Brainstorming is a familiar technique. People talk with others in open discussion to decide where to go for lunch or to determine which movie to see at a theater. In much the same way, writing down all of the options available helps the writer to create an open discussion and make choices about what to include in a paper or where to conduct further research.


Helpful methods for brainstorming include:


  1. List all ideas.

(a) Working Alone: Set a time limit of five or ten minutes. Place the topic or assignment question at the top of the page. Without stopping, write down every word or phrase that comes to mind.  Write down every idea, no matter how big or small, important or minor, common or controversial, for later consideration.  Do not edit; repetition is normal, so just keep throwing out ideas and writing them down. Don’t worry about full sentences; keep throwing out ideas and getting them onto the page. There need be no outside readers for this piece of writing; only the writer needs to be able to decode the information later. Feel free to write in shorthand and to draw pictures that will help trigger a memory later.

(b) Working with Others: Set a time limit of five or ten minutes, talking over a topic with one or more people (email or online discussion group), collecting every word or phrase that is generated by the conversation. Again, don’t worry about full sentences or appropriate sentences; just get all of the ideas down in a single place.


  1. Assess the List.  After the time limit is up, take an inventory of all that has been written.  Are there any specific ideas or words that are unique or compelling about the topic?


  1. Group all related words and phrases. Is there an interesting pattern of ideas emerging?  Is a clear or central claim of idea emerging?


  1. Brainstorm again. With the revised and organized list, try brainstorming again (five or ten minutes), working non-stop to generate new words and phrases about the organized list.  Expand on everything. If the topic requires an argumentative claim, consider spending some time throwing out ideas about the opposite side of the topic.  How might one argue against this chosen perspective? Acknowledging the other side of an argument makes the overall topic more clear and developed, and clarity and development in the pre-writing stages will make drafting and revising easier processes. 


  1. Inventory and Outline. After completing Steps 1-4, read over the list, placing similar ideas together. Numbering the ideas, either chronologically or in order of importance, often works well.


At this point in the Pre-writing process, many writers feel ready to begin outlining or generating paragraphs. Others do not. Writers who do not feel ready to move on from the Brainstorming stage of the process may want to repeat the process or to shift to Freewriting strategies.


For more information on this topic, please visit the Writing Centers at Colorado, Purdue, and Chapel Hill.