Choosing a paper topic or narrowing down a topic of interest is an important part of the scholarly writing process. Many times, your instructor will assign you a topic to write about or will provide you with some topic guidelines. However, you still must ensure that your topic fulfills your assignment requirements. The resources below contain several suggestions to consider when planning, brainstorming, and developing your ideas for an assignment.
Once you have narrowed down your paper topic, you may want to try one of the following brainstorming exercises to help you generate further ideas. Review our prewriting resources for suggestions on organization and critical thinking at the start of a writing project.
Freewrite. In this exercise, sit down and write out anything that comes to mind about your paper topic for about 5 to 7 minutes. These ideas can be full sentences, phrases, topics, quotations, or even single words. Do not consult sources while writing (you will get to those later). When you are finished, review your notes and start organizing your ideas into a logical order.
Visualize. Use this as an individual exercise or to supplement your freewrite notes. Sit down and draw circles on the page. In each circle, write out one topic or idea related to the topic of your paper. Make it crazy and unorganized—it does not have to look professional. Use words, phrases, quotations, sources, topics, and anything else that comes to mind. Then, after 5-7 minutes of filling in the circles, draw lines between circles that relate to one another. This exercise will help you to organize a hierarchy of ideas and allow you to visualize the connections among different topics and ideas.
If you’re especially ambitious, you may want to give some mind mapping software a try. This is perfect for those of you that might be visual learners. The folks in the Walden Writing Center have recommended FreeMind and Microsoft’s OneNote in the past. We also like what ExamTime has to offer (you can see a mind map we put together when we were conceptualizing our center by clicking on the image below):
For more information, you might want to check out Tony Buzen’s Ted Talk. Buzen’s career has literally been based on mind mapping. For more practical instruction, you might want to check out Melanie Pinola’s article, “How to Use Mind Maps to Unleash your Brain’s Creativity and Potential.” She has some wonderful advice on how to get started.
Move. Walk around the room as you consider the topic at hand, but keep a pen and paper nearby for the moment that you stumble upon an idea. If you dislike pacing back and forth, alternate your exercises: Do 10 sit-ups, write one idea, then do 10 push-ups and write another idea. Increasing your blood flow will also boost your creativity!
Talk to Yourself. Purchase a tape recorder and talk to yourself. Go anywhere you want--any place that inspires you. Record yourself as you talk through the main ideas of your paper and remind yourself of what you want to include. Read your notes aloud. Then, back at your computer, write down your ideas as you play them back, focusing on their content rather than their organization.
Create a Full Sentence Outline. In this exercise, write out a topic sentence for each main and subpoint you would like to make in your paper. Put these sentences in an outline format. Now all you have to do is add evidence and analysis to complete your paper. Alternatively, you can make an outline map that assigns squares and circles to each point and subpoint.
The exact prewriting exercise you choose does not matter, so do not assume that you must use every single exercise. Instead, find one that works for you and use it to assist your thought process.
For information on brainstorming ideas to help develop a paper topic, see the Writing Center's page on brainstorming: https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter/writingprocess/brainstorming