A good writer is part scientist and part artist. Like a scientist, you have to be willing to ask questions systematically, inquiring about how things work, the ways they work, where they occur, and how to research them. You also must be willing, like an artist, to use what you know to create something new and imaginative. The invention strategies below are designed to help you generate ideas for writing in ways that are at once both systematic and creative. As you use them, try to thINK--to think in ink, on paper, so that your ideas are recorded for easy reference when planning and drafting.
Clustering is a way of generating ideas by mapping and organizing them as they occur. It works as follows:
1) In a word or phrase, write your topic in the center of a piece of paper. Circle it.
2) Also in a word or phrase, write down the main parts or central ideas of your topic. Circle these, and connect them to the topic in the center.
3) The next step is to generate facts, details, examples, or ideas related in any way to these main parts. Cluster these around the main parts.
Clustering can be used to plan an essay as you find and organize subtopics. You may discard several of them before settling on one that is promising. In this way, clustering can be used to narrow and focus the scope (or breadth) of a paper topic.
Listing is an easy way to generate ideas and sort them. Here is how listing works best for invention work:
1) Give your list a title that indicates your main idea.
2) Write as fast as you can, relying on short words or phrases, including anything your mind generates, whether or not it seems useful.
3) When you've exhausted the list, you can organize it by marking the most promising items, sorting items in related groups, numbering key items in order of importance, deleting items that are unpromising, and adding new items to the list.
Cubing is useful for probing a topic from six different perspectives (hence its name, "cubing," a "six-sided" activity). The six perspectives are describing (what does it look like? what size is it? color? shape? texture?), comparing (what is it similar to? different from?), associating (what does it remind you of? what does it make you think of?), analyzing (how is it made? where did it come from? where is it going?), applying (what can you do with it? what uses does it have?), and arguing (what arguments can you make for it? against it?). To use cubing productively, follow these guidelines:
1) Hold your chosen topic in focus, and write quickly about it from each of the six perspectives. If you limit yourself to three to five minutes from each perspective, you'll complete the entire activity in half an hour.
2) Do not limit yourself to your present knowledge. Indicate what you need to learn about your topic, and where you might find such information.
3) Look for surprises, "hot spots" that indicate some special area of interest, insight, or immediacy. You can use clustering or outlining to organize your material.
Dramatizing allows you to think about human behavior in dramatic terms. Drama has action, actors, setting, motives, and methods, and each of these points provides a different perspective on behavior. You can think of dramatizing as a deepened analysis of the journalistic question HDWDWW: "How Does Who Do What and Why?" To use dramatizing, explore these questions in writing, then pay particular attention to questions like these:
What is the actor doing? How did the actor get involved in the situation? Why does the actor do this? What else might the actor do? What is being accomplished? How is it being accomplished? What do the actions reveal? How does the setting influence the actors and actions?
Freewriting generates ideas by "freeing" the link between your brain and your pen. In freewriting, the object is to write as quickly and as freely as you can, and generate as many ideas as possible in a timed period--for example, five or ten minutes. Looping--the strategy of returning to and focusing on your topic--is an especially useful tool. From almost any starting point, you can find a center of interest and eventually a thesis. The steps are simple:
1) Write down your area of interest. Write nonstop for five minutes. Write rapidly, without stopping to correct or reread. The point is to generate ideas on paper, so your pencil must keep moving. If you "block," or grind to a halt, rewrite the title of your topic a few times to get going.
2) At the end of ten minutes, reread your freewriting. Decide what is most important--a thought, a pattern of ideas, a phrase, a detail. Writers call this the "hot spot." To complete the loop, express this thought in a single sentence on a fresh sheet of paper.
3) Beginning with this sentence, write nonstop for five minutes. Then you can loop again--and again (and again, if necessary)--until you arrive at a tentative thesis idea. With each loop, your ideas should become more focused and articulated.
Asking questions about a subject is a way to learn about it and decide what to write. Try to answer each of these questions at least briefly with a word or phrase, but if you wish, you can spend several sentences, even an entire page, on a promising question. Try to be thorough but playful--remember, the task is to generate as many ideas as possible in a short period of time.
1) What is your subject? (what is its name? other names? what aspects do the names emphasize? what would a still photograph or moving picture look like? what would you put in a time capsule to represent your subject? what have you learned about it?)
2) What characteristics does your subject have? (what are its parts? name and describe them. how is each part related to the others?)
3) How is your subject similar to and different from other subjects? (what is it similar to, and in what ways? what is it different from, and in what ways?)
4) Where does your subject fit in the world? (where and when did it originate? how long will it continue to exist? where and when is it normally encountered? what is it a part of? what do other people think of it?)
A good writer--part scientist, part artist--generates a great deal
of unused material. The point of any invention activity is thINKing--that is,
thinking in ink, generating ideas on paper so that you have easy reference to them
when planning and drafting. The more material you generate, the better material you'll be
able to choose--and use.
Two of the best invention or "idea-generating" activities
are not mentioned above. They are reading and brainstorming. Nothing will
help your writing nearly so much as being well-read and well-conversed in
your writing topics.