In this post, I’ll to give you some suggestions on how to kickstart your brainstorming process and optimize the way you come up with new ideas for essays or other creative and academic projects.

1)Freewriting: When you freewrite, you just write down whatever comes into your mind. You don’t control it or consider it consciously. You also don’t worry about the quality of what you’re putting down, or whether it makes sense, or whether there are spelling and grammar mistakes. None of that matters. 

The goal is to release you from the grip of your internal critic, who sometimes prevents you from getting at the insights and ideas your project needs.

2) Thinking beyond the rectangle

Even though you might be writing or working within a particular academic or artistic field, it sometimes helps to bring in methods or concepts from other areas you know well and see how they resonate. This example comes from something I found on the web, and it illustrates the principle fairly well:

“When discussing “culture” in your English, communications, or cultural studies course, you could incorporate the definition of “culture” used in the biological sciences. Remember those little Petri dishes from your lab experiments in high school? Those dishes are used to “culture” substances for bacterial growth and analysis, right? How might it help you write your paper if you thought of “culture” as a medium upon which certain things will grow, will develop in new ways or will even flourish beyond expectations, but upon which the growth of other things might be retarded, significantly altered, or stopped altogether?”

3) Break down the topic into levels

Once you have the assignment in front of you, you might brainstorm on the general topic, like “How have the activities and ideology of revolutionary groups in Latin America (such as FARC and others) affected the general direction of left wing politics in the region?”

However, within this one question there are a number of related smaller topics that you can also brainstorm on separately: left wing politics in Latin America, FARC, revolutionary and Marxist ideology in the Southern Hemisphere, the effects of guerilla warfare, etc. After you’ve compiled separate brainstorming lists for each of these, make sure you double check your ideas through research.

4) Go for a walk.

This isn’t a brainstorming technique per se but sometimes taking a walk (especially in a natural area, park or beach, rainforest, etc) can stimulate ideas that you might not have come up with otherwise. It’s also a good way to reduce the stress of the project itself.

More on some of the mental/emotional benefits of walking in nature: