Using Online Teaching Tricks to Help Writers Come Up with Ideas

Every writing project, from a history paper to a full-length novel, starts with a singular idea—but from where do these ideas originate? As some the teaching tips found at Online Teaching Degree mention, brainstorming exercises enable writers to thoroughly examine the fundamentals of a proposed topic and determine the most effective way to describe it to the reader. If an author properly cultivates an idea, then the writing process is greatly simplified and the results are more readable.

Free writing

A good idea is not necessarily organized. Arranging all the details to form a coherent article or story can be tricky. According to the Writing Center at UNC Chapel Hill, a “practice run” of the material, or free writing, can be an effective starting point.

During a free writing exercise, the author simply transcribes every passing thought related to the project, without stopping, for a pre-determined increment of time (15 minutes is the standard). Normal writing conventions, such as spelling and punctuation, are temporarily ignored in order to keep the process fluid and spontaneous. Most importantly, the pen must not stop moving until time has expired. Here is an example:

“My assignment is to write an article about the bitumen reserves of Utah. I know that bitumen is a potential source of petroleum and that the mines where it is extracted are environmentally unsafe. But the mines will create a lot of jobs and lessen America’s dependence on foreign oil so they are not all bad. I should weigh the pros and cons of the mines and develop a thesis based on my results…”

The stream-of-consciousness that results might not be pretty, but a patient author will pick through the unusable filler to find new insights about his or her topic. Even if nothing valuable is gained from the exercise, the idea will seem less cluttered and more focused.


If an author has chosen an idea but struggles to explain it properly, Daily Writing Tips suggests cubing. This exercise allows for a thorough examination of any topic by approaching it from six different viewpoints:

  • Description—what is the idea, in the simplest terms?
  • Comparison—what is the idea similar to and what is it unlike?
  • Association—what other things come to mind, based on the idea?
  • Analysis—what smaller parts make up the idea?
  • Application—how can the idea be used?
  • Argument—make points that support and oppose the idea.

This brainstorming method is especially useful in nonfiction writing, particularly in opinion essays. When the author breaks down an idea in these terms, finer points of the argument become clearer—and thus, easier to relate to the reader.


Once a main topic is chosen, the Writing Center at the University of Kansas recommends clustering. This technique allows the author to create a diagram that displays the primary idea, as well as the sub-ideas that constitute it. This is an effective way to establish previously unnoticed connections between the parts of an article.

During a clustering exercise, the author writes and circles the main idea in the center of a sheet of paper. Next, he or she jots down all the relevant sub-topics, and connects each one to the main idea with a straight line. As connections are established between the sub-topics, they are also connected with a line. Eventually, the diagram will display a web of inter-connected thoughts, all traced back to one main idea.

Suppose the main topic is “NBA trade policy.” Relevant sub-topics might include abstract terms, such as “free agency,” “deadlines” and “contractual obligations,” as well as specific cases, such as the 2010 Miami Heat fiasco and Chris Paul’s failed bid to join the L.A. Lakers in 2011. By literally drawing lines between related sub-topics and visually recognizing these connections, the author effectively organizes the material and produces a draft that is concise and well rounded.

For many writers, the initial stages of a project can be the most frustrating. Brainstorming techniques eliminate confusion, organize data and ultimately serve as a useful first step toward high-quality writing. By exploring the details of a given topic, the author will eventually arrive at the best way to share it with his or her audience.   

Alicia Moore has always loved to learn and is working toward earning a teaching degree. She is particularly interested in how the advent of the Internet and technology are changing the educational landscape. When she is not exploring the future of education,  Alicia enjoys writing about literature, languages and online resources for teachers.


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