Brainstorming and Freewriting

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how brainstorming and freewriting can help you start writing

Chances are you have learned about brainstorming in your other English courses. If not, then maybe you make lists or charts to help you make a decision in your life. Perhaps you have worked a job where you had to solve a problem with your coworkers so you listed ideas that helped you get started. When you writing in college, it’s helpful to get some ideas down before you write. As you begin thinking about a topic, before you begin your official draft, you write down ideas and concepts associated with your assignment to develop your ideas. This is a critical step in helping to shape and organize your paper. Brainstorming and freewriting are two great ways to get started.


Brainstorming allows you to quickly generate a large number of ideas. You can brainstorm with others or you can brainstorm by yourself, which sometimes turns into freewriting. To effectively brainstorm, write down whatever ideas come to mind. The key is to not place judgment on what you wrote. Don’t worry about whether it sounds smart or if it directly connects to your topic. To brainstorm, let your thoughts about a specific topic flow, and list those thoughts without stopping or judging if what you are writing about is any good.


Let’s take a look at an easy example. Say you are being asked to write an essay about squirrels, and you’re not particularly sure what you would like to write about since you’ve never thought too much about the squirrels in your yard. The goal is to get down as many thoughts as possible in order to answer a question.

Example: What do I know about squirrels?

  • How to get them out of the garden
  • Squirrel traps
  • Repellents for squirrels
  • Types of squirrels
  • How to get rid of them humanely (without killing)
  • Brown vs. black vs. red squirrels
  • Flying squirrels
  • What they eat
  • Different types of play
  • Training squirrels
  • Hunting squirrels
  • Squirrels and cats
  • Squirrels and dogs
  • How they nest
  • Build nests in the same place each year

So, what happens once you’ve brainstormed a topic? Look over the list. Are there items that group together? Are there items that catch your interest as a thinker, researcher, and writer—items you want to know more about? Are there items that seem unrelated or not useful? Use your list as a starting place; it creates ideas for you, as a writer, to work with in your paper. If you look closely at this list, do you see topics that could be grouped together?

Sometimes it works better to write down each idea on a separate piece of paper. Some people like to type their ideas. The most important part of this process is to be curious about your topic.

It also helps to ask yourself some brainstorming questions:

  1. What am I interested in? What do I care about?
  2. What do I know that I could teach others?
  3. What would I like to change about this issue?

In order to capture more of your thoughts, you may want to brainstorm a few times until you have enough ideas to start writing.

Brainstorming Assignment Example

Imagine you are in a class. Your instructor says you will have to write a paper on your favorite freetime activity, and that you must also persuade your reader to try it.

  1. First ask yourself, What do I care about? or What am I interested in? It is easiest to write about a topic that you are interested in. This could be anything from gardening to ice skating, or from writing poetry to playing the piano. Your list, in this example, would then read:
    1. gardening
    2. ice skating
    3. writing poetry
    4. playing the piano
  2. Second, ask yourself, What do I know that I could teach others?
    1. You may be able to teach someone else something that you really enjoy. Good for you. If you cannot, don’t worry; you are still just brainstorming. Perhaps you teach swimming lessons or t-ball, or maybe you bake really well and are able to offer some of your insights. Your list, in this example, would then read:
      1. swimming lessons
      2. t-ball
      3. baking

Let’s think of another example. How about the common situation in which the instructor wants you to write about “something you care about” or an “issue you have”?

  1. Again start by asking yourself a question. Ask yourself, What would you like to change about the issue? Think about things that irritate them, some small and others large.
    1. An example of something small that’s irritating could be people you live with who leave trails of toothpaste by the sink and never clean up after themselves. A personal example can be useful as a bridge to a larger issue that will be your topic—in this case it could be community living and personal responsibility.
    2. In academic writing with a less personal slant, the source of irritation is often another writer/theorist with whom you disagree. Your “irritation” then would lead to an effective piece about why you have a better conception of what’s really going on.
    3. A less direct version of this would be a writer/theorist who makes some good points but lacks something in his/her argument that you can add to the “conversation.”

Maybe you already have a method that works for you and it looks nothing like this process. Do you answer the brainstorming questions with your process?


Freewriting is just what it says—writing freely, whatever comes into your mind, without caring about spelling, punctuation, etc. It’s a way to free up your thoughts, help you know where your interests lie, and get your fingers moving on the keyboard (and this physical act can be a way to get your thoughts flowing).

Try a series of timed freewritings. Set a timer for five minutes. The object is to keep your fingers moving constantly and write down whatever thoughts come into your head during that time. If you can’t think of anything to say on your topic, keep writing what comes to mind. Thinking about what you need at the grocery store? Write that down. Thinking about what you need to do for your math class? Write that down too. Stop when the timer rings. Shake out your hands, wait awhile, and then do more timed freewriting. After you have a set of five or so freewritings, review them to see if you’ve come back to certain topics, or whether you recorded some ideas that might be the basis for a piece of writing.

Freewriting Example

Here’s a sample freewrite that could yield a number of topics for writing:

I don’t think this is useful or helpful in any way. This is stupid, stupid, stupid. I’m looking out of my window and it’s the end of may and I can see that white cotton stuff flying around in the air, from the trees. One of my aunts was always allergic to that stuff when it started flying around in the spring. Don’t know offhand what type of tree that comes from. That aunt is now 94 years old and is in a nursing home for a while after she had a bad episode. She seems to have one now every spring. It’s like that old tree cotton triggers something in her body. Allergies. Spring. Trying to get the flowers to grow but one of the neighbors who is also in his 90s keeps feeding the squirrels and they come and dig up everyone’s flowerbed to store their peanuts. Plant the flowers and within thirty minutes there’s a peanut there. Wonder if anyone has grown peanut bushes yet?

Don’t know . . . know . . .I really need to buy pesto for tonight’s dinner.

Possible topics from this freewrite:

  • Allergy causes
  • Allergies on the rise in the U.S.
  • Consequences of humanizing wild animals
  • Squirrel behavior patterns and feeding habits
  • Growing your own food

Try It