“The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.” ~Linus Pauling

Most writers find it difficult to overcome writer’s block. It can stop you dead in your tracks before you write a single word. The most effective way to overcome writer’s block is to use a simple technique called brainstorming.

So, what’s brainstorming? It’s a creative process that unleashes a flood of new ideas. The basic principle of brainstorming is to start with an idea, any idea, and to write down all related thoughts for the next few minutes. It doesn’t matter whether any of these ideas seem relevant or sensible. The crucial first step is to collect all ideas on paper. You can evaluate and organize them later.

Brainstorm early and often
“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple, learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” ~John Steinbeck

It’s best to kick off any writing project with a brainstorming session. Once you have gathered sufficient ideas, you can organize them to form an outline. Most writers follow this sequence:

Brainstorm–>Outline–>Start writing–>Complete project–>Revise–>Submit

However, you can brainstorm during any stage of the writing project. Whenever you feel bored or bogged down, you can use brainstorming to uncover new ideas and get unstuck.

Brainstorming: Five Simple Techniques
“If I have a thousand ideas and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied.” ~Alfred Bernhard Nobel

1. Free writing:
Free writing, also described as stream-of-consciousness writing, is the most popular form of brainstorming. It’s recommended by most writing teachers such as Peter Elbow, Natalie Goldberg, and Julia Cameron. They all advise you to write continuously for a fixed duration of time or a fixed number of pages without stopping to think, edit or correct. By doing this, you learn to ignore the internal critic while writing your first draft.

2. Note-taking:
Informal brainstorming about any aspect of your writing project can be done everywhere. You can brainstorm while driving, commuting, gardening, listening to music or washing dishes. Sometimes, you may choose to go for a stroll while grappling with a particularly knotty problem. It’s important to write any thoughts, observations, and insights in a notebook or journal at once or you are likely to forget them. Therefore, always keep a small notebook within reach to note any ideas immediately.

Instead of writing, you can think aloud and record your thoughts using a voice recorder. Later, you can transcribe the recording or convert it into text using voice recognition software.

3. Mind mapping
Mind mapping is a diagrammatic technique of brainstorming done by clustering ideas on paper around a central idea like the web of a spider.

Start your mind map by writing the title or main idea at the center of a blank sheet of paper and enclose it in a circle. Then rapidly write down every thought that strikes you around this central word. Enclose each word or phrase in a circle and link them to the central word. Write every thought on the page without any thinking or evaluation. Give your thoughts a chance to flow freely. You can use phrases, sentences or even pictures in your mind map. Eventually, your mind map will have many connected but random thoughts surrounding your central idea.

You can mind map with paper and pen or on your computer with the help of free mind mapping software (freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Download).

4. Visual brainstorming:
You can use sketches, images, paint, colors, and objects to generate ideas instead of spoken or written words. Visual brainstorming can give better results than verbal brainstorming because it’s more innovative and connects to the intuitive right brain.

5. Brainstorming with a friend or writing group:
Sometimes, you may need to seek help from others, especially if you are unable to find the solution by yourself. Describe your project and allow your friend or writing partner or critique group to comment, ask questions, and make suggestions. For best results, write down all ideas and evaluate them later.

Benefits of Creative Brainstorming:
“It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to always be right by having no ideas at all.” ~Edward De Bono

The five major benefits of brainstorming are:
1. Simple: Brainstorming does not require any expensive equipment or training. All you need is paper and pen or your computer. If you choose, you can use a timer to signal the end of the brainstorming session.

2. Flexible: You can brainstorm whenever you want and as long as you like. There are no rules and no limits.

3. Stress-free: Brainstorming is easy to do because it focuses on the process, not on the product. All you are trying to do is to generate lots of ideas, which may or may not be useful. Since you are suspending your internal critic during brainstorming, it’s the ideal way to tackle writer’s block.

4. Fun: Since brainstorming is so simple, easy, creative, and undemanding, it’s a lot of fun to do. Thanks to brainstorming, writing becomes more fun than fun, especially when it leads you into a state of flow.

5. Flow: Flow is a state of boundless creativity during which you become immersed in writing and lose all track of time. Brainstorming can usually pave the way to a state of flow.

“Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.” ~Emile Chartier

Brainstorming is a simple, flexible and fun way to jump-start your writing projects. It enables you to write without hesitation and is the best antidote to writer’s block. If you are blocked, it’s because you are not brainstorming!

(25 January 2012)

Rohi Shetty is a medical doctor, Vipassana meditator, writer, editor, translator and blogger. His short stories and articles have been published online and in print.

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