class log stamp

GEN 100

Writing Workshop

Brainstorming

Brainstorming has many steps, and applies to many parts of the writing process. The most important rule to remember about brainstorming is that it is about creating as many ideas as possible.

As a student, it is normal for you to want to minimize your effort. You have so much to do, and so little time, that you want to do only the least amount of work, and then move on. In some cases, this makes sense—but not in brainstorming!

In brainstorming, the whole idea is to come up with as many ideas as is possible, and then choose the best from that number. Students tend to do the opposite: asked to come up with three ideas, a student will think of three—and then stop! That is the wrong way. The right way is to come up with ten or even twenty ideas—and then choose the three best from the group. Doing this will increase the quality of the work you hand in.

This technique works for many different parts of your writing:

If you are not using brainstorming for each of these, if you are not coming up with lists and choosing the best ones—then your writing will be of worse quality.

This is true of many tasks you will do in life. An excellent example is photography. Many people believe that great photography is about carefully arranging the perfect stage, and then taking the one perfect picture. This is not true. The way to get great photographs is to take a hundred pictures—and then choose the best one!

Essay #1 Assignment

Your first major assignment is to write an essay. Here are the details of the assignment:

Remember, each paragraph is a separate idea; that means that each paragraph has to describe the characteristic in a different way.

For example, if the essay thesis is "My Sister Is Clumsy," you should not write three body paragraphs which are all about your sister dropping things and breaking them. Instead, you should think of three different ways your sister is clumsy. For example, "My sister often trips and falls over things," "My sister always makes disastrous mistakes using her computer," and "My sister usually says the wrong things at the wrong time." These show that your sister is clumsy in three ways: physically, technically, and socially.

The point: you have to come up not only with several examples, but several types of examples.

Keep in mind how much detail you will have to write when you choose you 3-5 finalists; try to choose people and characteristics which you think will provide enough material for your essay.

Assignment #1: Brainstorm an Essay Topic

Your first task will be to come up with an essay topic: the person and their characteristic.

Basic steps:
  1. Draw clustering brainstorm on piece of A4 paper
  2. Study the results
  3. Choose best 3-5 people/character ideas, Write them in a document
  4. Hand in clustering paper
  5. Share document with 3-5 best ideas using Google Docs

Many students try to take the easy route. They think of a person, then think of a character point. Finished!!

That, of course, is a terrible method. The first idea you have is almost never the best!

First Rule of Writing: You must always think of many more points than you eventually use. The idea is to throw away the bad ideas, so only the good ones are left behind.

Brainstorming is like a sports championship, or a beauty contest: in the beginning, there are many entrants. They go through several stages in which many ideas are weeded out. Eventually, only a few are left, and the best one is chosen from that group.

In the case of Essay #1, you will have to come up with at least a few dozen people, with a few character points for each one.

You will have to give examples about the person and character point which you finally choose. In the end, you will need 6 strong example stories about the person. Therefore, before you brainstorm, you will need at least 12, and hopefully as many as 18 possible stories to tell.


Now that you understand the assignment, you must begin brainstorming.

Your first job is to think of people to write about. In this case, clustering will help. When trying to think of people you can write about, start with you at the center, then write lines going out to bubbles with categories of people you know—for example, family, friends, school, work, other. Then, around each one, list the people you know well from each group. Once you have finished, you should have at least 20-30 people. Now, go to each person and write as many characteristics as you can next to their name.

An example of Clustering
Click to see larger version

In the end, you should have a large number of people and characteristics to choose from. At this stage, you cannot be 100% sure who is best, but you should be able to select 3-5 people who stand out as the most interesting. Try to choose people about whom you may have several stories to act as examples for the body paragraphs.

What You Must Give Me

After you have finished the process I describe above, you should have:

  1. A piece of paper which looks like the clustering image above; and
  2. A list of 3-5 people, each with a personality trait; you should be able to write in detail, with many examples, about any of those people.

You must give me both of these results.

  1. Clustering: hand in the paper with your clustering work.
  2. List of best ideas: Create a Google Docs file with the list, and share it with me.

Assignment #2: Brainstorm Thesis & Topic Sentences

Your next task is to figure out which of your topics (person and characteristic) is most likely to be the best for your essay.

Basic steps:
  1. Begin with the 3-5 best topic ideas (you already made them as homework)
  2. Choose the one or two topic ideas you think are best
  3. Brainstorm as many examples of their character points as possible (at least 12, more is better)
  4. Review examples; delete any which are not possible to write as detailed supporting examples; you must have at least 9 or 10 left
  5. Group successful examples together into categories of similar example types
  6. Choose best example groups to create topic sentence ideas
  7. Create a basic 4-line outlines of the best topic (create two of them if you can)
  8. Write them in a document, put into your shared Google Docs folder

Here, it is helpful to think about your assignment again. The essay will be five paragraphs long, with a minimum length of 1000 words. Your body paragraphs will range between 200 and 250 words. For example, a 220-word paragraph may have 12-15 sentences. One sentence will be the topic sentence, and one or two will be major supporting details. If you have one example per paragraph, that would mean maybe 10-12 sentences to describe the example; with two examples, you would need perhaps 5-6 sentences per example.

The essay is also descriptive, meaning that you have to add as many specific, sensory details as possible.

As a result, you have to think about each idea for a thesis statement: can I come up with three different ways to describe this character point, and can I think of one or two vivid examples for each way?

Important: do not begin by coming up with topic sentences, the three ways to describe the character point. Just come up with examples. Making the topic sentences will come later.


Your task: take each of the 3-5 people you chose from your first brainstorming session, and brainstorm examples of this person and their characteristic. As with all brainstorming activities, do not stop at the minimum number of examples. Keep going until you have at least a dozen or more. If you cannot think of that many examples, then set the person aside, and try the next one.

Do not begin by coming up with ways, or categories, for each character point. Just come up with a long list of examples. After you come up with the examples, you will study the list and see if you can divide the list into categories. In this way, the examples will lead you to creating your topic sentences.

Here is a list of examples around one topic person and their character point. When I was a college student, I worked at a part-time job; my boss was a terrible person, and very dishonest. That is my working thesis: my boss was dishonest.

Here is a list of points that I could brainstorm about him:

In the above list, you can see that there are many examples—seventeen, at least—which I could use to fill out my essay. That is enough to tell me that this might be a good essay to write.


Next, I might ask myself: will this be interesting for my audience? Whether the audience is your teacher, or a general audience, could the writing be something people would be interested in learning? In the above example, I think the answer is "yes"; my boss was unusually corrupt, and people enjoy hearing such stories. I believe I could make an interesting essay around these events.


Finally, we can make topic sentences. Important to understand:

A good way to proceed is to organize your example ideas into groups. Each group could possibly become a topic sentence for the paragraph.

You must look at the list of ideas you made, and then think about how they can be joined together because they are similar. Here is my informal, brainstormed list of groups, and my thoughts about how good each group is:

At this point in my process, you will notice that I have made a discovery: many of my examples are not about being "dishonest," which is the character point I chose. As a result, I should adjust my character point. Reading over the list of examples, I can see that instead of "dishonesty," I should probably choose "unprofessional," a word which says he did not act the way managers should act. This seems too mild, however, so I will add the modifier "shamefully."

New Working Thesis: My Boss Was Shamefully Unprofessional.

After making that change, I can see that my examples fit much better, and it is easier to brainstorm categories:

  1. He lied to, cheated, and stole from business associates
  2. He broke the law when dealing with employees
  3. He treated workers poorly, bullying and lying to them
  4. He acted like a childish jerk
  5. He managed the business poorly

Now I have a list of five possible topic sentences. I should choose the strongest ones, based on importance and on which I think can provide the best examples.

You should also beware of overlapping, where two topic sentences could cover the same examples—for example, "He managed the business poorly" could actually be the same as all the other topics. It's too general. "He acted like a childish jerk" is good, but if it is used together with the point about treating workers poorly, there could be overlap.

"He broke the law when dealing with employees" seems like it might overlap with "He treated workers poorly," but one deals with the law, the other deals with personal behavior. However, I might not want to write an essay with topic sentences focusing on "Business Associates - Employees - Employees" as subjects of each point; it might seem like an essay on how he treated employees, with the part about business associates being out of place. As a result, I might change the point about "He broke the law when dealing with employees" to be "He broke many laws," and make behavior with employees a different category.

As a result, here is my final basic outline:

Now I have my basic outline! It is unified (all the points support a central main idea), my supporting topic sentences each describe a different way that the thesis statement is true, I know that there are many vivid examples which I can use to support my points, and (hopefully) the essay will be interesting for readers.

You must have two of these which you will send me using Google Docs.

What You Must Give Me

After you have finished the process I describe above, you should have:

  1. Two essay #1 topic ideas (two people, each with a character point)
  2. Each topic idea should have three topic sentence ideas (from the best groups of examples)
  3. Each topic idea should have 12-18 possible example stories you could use

You must create a Google Docs file; inside, you must give me the working thesis statement, topic sentence ideas, and list of possible examples. You must do this twice: once for each of the two final ideas you have for the essay.

After creating this document, share it with me on Google Drive.


Now what?

Now you have a more stable working thesis statement, good topic sentences, and a list of examples you can use as material to create your body paragraphs. However, you are not finished yet—you might still discover that your ideas are not good enough! From here, you will move on to the outline, where you will map out your ideas and make sure that your essay will be successful.


Video Tutorial

All of the required assignment steps are shown in this video.