ESL: Brainstorming Strategies

From the ESL Student Handbook, by Young-Kyung Min, PhD


Brainstorming is a very important part of your writing process. Learning effective brainstorming strategies can eventually help you develop your writing muscles and enhance the effectiveness of your learning across the curriculum.

There are various strategies you can use when you want to further develop your ideas about a certain topic, or when you have writer’s block—the moment that you feel that you can’t write anything useful about the topic.  Instead of worrying, wondering, and crossing out, try to use the following brainstorming methods.


Freewriting is one of the most commonly used brainstorming strategies. As the name suggests, you are free to write down anything that comes to your mind about your topic. You sit and write without stopping or editing for a certain amount of time. During a freewriting time, you should not worry about grammar, organization, spelling, vocabulary choice, or any mechanics. If you cannot think of the word in English, you just write down the word in your native language and move on. The purpose of freewriting is to push your thinking further and to write down the ideas that were percolating in your mind. Make sure that you are focused on your ideas—not on any stylistic or grammatical aspects of writing—during your freewriting time.


The next step you may want to try after your freewriting is a focused freewriting. First, read the freewrite you just did and underline the sentences that you think capture the key ideas that you want to further explore for your paper. Transfer the main ideas underlined in your first freewriting to a separate piece of paper (this is your first loop). Do another freewrite for a certain amount of time by focusing on the main ideas captured in your first freewriting (second loop). The cycle can be repeated for the third or more loops. Repeating this cycle can help you further develop your ideas and overcome writer’s block. 

Journal Writing

Journal writing can help capture the little thoughts that come to your mind while you are taking a walk, listening to music, driving, cooking, taking a shower, and so on.  You will learn that those little thoughts can be actually the fundamental basis of your writing. You may be surprised that you already have some good ideas on your topic. Many of your instructors will encourage you to integrate your everyday experiences into your writing and academic analysis. Journal writing can help you not only develop your writing skills but also recognize that your everyday life experiences can be very powerful sources for academic papers. Thus, journal writing on a regular basis can help you grow naturally as researchers as well as writers. 


Use words and simple phrases in bullet points instead of full sentences to capture the key ideas you want to develop in your paper. Try to jot down your ideas as quickly as possible without worrying about grammar, vocabulary, or any mechanics. Then, think about how you can write around the points on the list and how you should organize the ideas for your paper. As you begin to write, make sure that you also check out the notes you have made during your reading for your assignment (See the section on Reading Strategies for further information).


Another effective way to brainstorm ideas for your paper and to overcome writer’s block is to draw diagrams, maps, or pictures of your ideas on a blank piece of paper (possibly using different colored pens or highlighters). When you have difficulty understanding certain concepts, try to visualize the concepts by putting your ideas in clusters or branches. Perhaps you will be able to identify the gaps and fallacies in your thinking and writing. This kind of visualization can help you see the specific aspects of writing where you are having the most difficulty and the areas that need improvement.

Journalist Questions

You can also use the journalist questions (What, When, Where, Why, Who, and How?) as a brainstorming strategy. By simply answering these, you can develop the main ideas of your paper as well as understand the requirements and focus of your assignment.

Draw Your Writing Process

Another strategy that can help overcome your writer’s block is to draw your writing process. Think about one particular assignment that you had most difficulty with, and draw the process of your engagement with the assignment on a blank piece of paper (here are examples of students’ drawings of their writing processes). Try to capture each step of the process including the readings you did, the conversations you had with your instructor, librarians, class mates, the tutoring sessions you had at the Writing and Communication Center, etc.

As you draw your writing process and reflect on the process of your engagement with the particular assignment, you can see how much time you really spent for each stage of your writing process (i.e., planning, reading, researching, drafting, writing, revising, and editing). For example, you may realize that you spent a small percentage of your time researching the topic although you did not have much knowledge about the topic. You may also realize that you just skimmed the required readings on the computer resulting in an insufficient understanding of the reading material. You may also recognize that you worked on the assignment as a solitary writer: you did not talk about your work with any other people. Thus, drawing your writing process with a particular assignment can help identify the areas you should improve to become a more effective reader and writer.



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 Young-Kyung Min, PhD

Education Program