In my humble yet infallible opinion, brainstorming is easily the most underrated part of the writing process. Perhaps the reason it’s underrated is because the word “brainstorm” is totally inadequate as a description of the mind pummeling that it is (or should be). Although the term “brainstorm” is dramatic as it is, I feel words like “mindblizzard,” “thoughtsplosion,” or “ideavalanche” would more appropriately describe the quality of a mind ravaging a good brainstorm should be like. Think of whatever topic you are writing about as your lost wallet and your mind as the room you are looking in to find it. Do you look under the table or couch and then call it quits after unsuccessfully locating your wallet (that’s your driver’s license, credit cards, and probably some cash)? Or, do you look through every possible crack, crevice, and cranny to find it (and even places where you know for a fact it couldn’t possibly be)? Leave no rock unturned, and then reconsider having rocks in your room.
On a completely unrelated topic that I promise will eventually be relevant: I am terrible at first dates. I never know what to say and when I do say something it’s usually wrong. Since most people like talking about themselves, I’ve found a successful strategy on dates is to constantly ask questions, delving deeper and deeper into a topic until all possible avenues are exhausted. This helps me avoid doing something stupid like “being myself” and usually the other person leaves thinking I’m a really great listener. This sort of exercise can be useful while brainstorming. Outside of the obvious weird places this analogy could go, think of your topic as your first date and do what I would do. Just keep asking questions. If you have literally no idea what to write about, start with something vague like, “What about this topic is interesting?” or try defining the key terms you’re dealing with. Then ask the newspaper questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. Don’t be afraid to pry while brainstorming. You’ll begin to find that most of your thoughts have some deeper, subcutaneous meaning. Once you get to those, write them down. On paper. With a pen.
Getting to these ideas will make organizing your ideas more of a challenge because these deeper concepts and thoughts will be more challenging themselves. But that’s not a bad thing, because more challenging = more interesting = better writing (ask the QSC, it’s true). Some people like to organize these ideas using outlines. For those of you like me who hate antiquated concepts like math and logic, perhaps a more abstract-minded brainstorm style would be preferable. The idea web (or bubble chart or whatever you call it) is a really great way to organize the brainstorming process on paper and make connections.
From my personal experience with writing and from the regular conversations about writing that I am privileged to have with students on a regular basis as a Writing Center tutor, I’ve found that 9 times out of 10 (approximately 90% of the time), the difference between a well structured paper with a thoughtful, well formed thesis and organized paragraphs and a wandering, confused paper with no direction was the practice (or lack thereof) of a good old fashioned brainstorm. Although it seems like a lot of work, spending quality time brainstorming and organizing your ideas will make the rest of the writing process much easier, provide for more quality writing, and will usually take less time.