ENGL 101
English Composition I
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Sitting & Thinking - Freewriting - Focused Freewriting - Brainstorming - Clustering - Reporter's Questions

Invention is the first stage of the writing process. You can't write if you have nothing to write about. Anything that you do that creates ideas or information that you can then turn into a piece of writing counts as invention. Remember that we are not worried at this point about organizing or actually writing right now. This stage of the writing process is simply about generating the content that we will organize, write, revise and edit later into a finished essay.

There are many strategies that can be used to generate ideas and information for writing. I will list some of the more common methods, but you need to realize that not all of these will work for every writer. At least ONE of these should work for every writer, but the perfect method for you needs to be determined by you, through trial and error. No matter how weird the technique is, if it works, use it. top of page

Sitting Around and Thinking. Some people are best able to generate ideas simply by thinking about their topic. This takes more discipline than most people have, however. If your thoughts are going to continually be distracted by how much you hate writing, or balancing your checkbook, or deciding what to have for dinner, this method will not work very well for you, even though it it is the method that almost every student claims to use "all the time." top of page

Freewriting. This method is primarily used to free the mind. Most of you are busy people, with a lot on your minds. Writing takes focus, and somebody worried about their jobs, their families, the itch on their leg, etc. are usually not able to focus very well. In addition, most people are not in very good shape when it comes to writing. They use their vocal communication skills constantly, but their written communication skills only when they have to. Freewriting allows your hand and mind to practice communicating together so that they will work together more smoothly.

This method has only a few simple rules:

At the end of the exercise, you can sift through the writing to see if anything came up, or you can simply toss the writing away, having effectively "emptied" your mind of the garbage that had collected there that was distracting you. top of page

Focused Freewriting. This is like freewriting, except that you start with a general topic already. You may start by freewriting about "summer vacation" or "diabetes." The point of a focused freewrite is to see what you know or remember about a subject, without editing the material. Since you are writing as quickly as possible, you will most likely force your brain to think of things, and your hand to write them down, that you wouldn't have written if you thought more carefully about the subject. Try to keep yourself focused on the subject, but also remember to write down whatever you are thinking, without editing. At the end of focused freewriting, you should be able to sift through the page or so that you've written and find some ideas that you can develop into a more developed piece of writing. top of page

Brainstorming. This is a method that most writers have learned at one time or another, with one name or another. This is a variation on "word-association," where you are given a word and asked to give the first word or phrase that pops into your mind. The main difference here is that you aren't limited to just one word. Instead, you should try to come up with as many words or phrases as possible that come to your mind when thinking about the topic.

Here are the basic rules for brainstorming:

Take a closer look at the list and begin to notice any connections that might exist between words or phrases that you wrote down. Any connections that exist could point to an idea that could be developed more fully in your finished work. top of page

Clustering. This method is known by many names, but I learned it, and teach it, as clustering. This is really a variation on brainstorming, but it works better for many people. Because it creates a more organized final product, it appeals to people who are highly organized themselves (It's not as messy as several of the other methods). Because it adds a visual element, people who are visual learners tend to like this method of invention.

The rules are simple:

This method allows for more complex invention, because every word, once it's put on the paper, can generate new ideas or responses. You are not limited to that original topic the way you are in brainstorming or focused freewriting. Each cluster of ideas becomes a potential starting point for a sentence or paragraph in your draft. This method, because it can become so complex, does not work well with a time limit.top of page

Reporter's Questions. This method is one that most people have encountered, but not usually in terms of generating content. The Reporter's Questions are the six most common points that a reader wants to know when they read an article.

They are:


Reporters are trained to answer these questions as quickly as possible in an article for a newspaper. Not every type or style of writing needs to answer these questions quickly, but all forms of writing benefit when writers have asked themselves these questions BEFORE they start writing.

The best way to use these questions to generate content and ideas is to make them a never-ending loop. Don't just ask each question once; take each answer as the starting point for a new question:

Question: Where did the accident take place?
Answer: At the corner of 5th and Pine.

Question: Why were you on the corner of 5th and Pine?
Answer: I was going to see my girlfriend.

Question: Where does your girlfriend live?
Answer: She lives over in Brentwood?

Question: Why were you so far out of your way, then?

As you can see, if you limit each of the reporter's questions to one use, you'd never get the second "Why" or "Where" question in this exchange. This method works best when you can have a friend pose the questions to you, so that they can be asked quickly, and you don't know what question is coming next. Be sure to write down the answers so that you don't forget them. You will be surprised at the depth and detail of information that you can develop in just 5 minutes of these simple questions.

Invention is a necessary part of any writing process. The methods that I've shown here are NOT the only methods possible. They are NOT the "best" methods, or the "most effective." They are simply the ones that have worked most consistently for students in the past. Every writer is a unique individual who will determine and develop his or her own methods and techniques for writing. However, until you do develop your own methods and techniques for invention, try these. top of page