Number. 14 © CDTL 2003
Generating Ideas for an Essay
Dr Deng Xudong
Centre for English Language Communication

Teachers of various disciplines may find it unpleasurable to read and comment on student essays because many essays may sound banal and superficial, lack original and interesting ideas, and/or even share very similar content especially when students write on the same topic. In contrast, students may also dislike writing an essay as they may often find themselves at their wits’ end as to what to write for their essays.

So what is the problem here? How can students be guided to produce essays of a more readable nature? The key, I believe, lies in an effective process of idea generation and information collection on the part of student writers.

Most students generate ideas by thinking quickly for five to ten minutes (‘brainstorming’), listing only three or four ideas (which produces a typical five-paragraph essay) and then immediately drafting their text. This procedure is of course very much required for time-constrained writing tasks such as exams. But this lack of prolonged exploratory writing and information collection in the strategy of most student writers contributes to the production of shallow and superficial ideas rather than the creation of new and stimulating thoughts.

Hence, what are some more effective ways of generating ideas? Writing textbooks would typically list the following: brainstorming, listing, looping, mind-mapping or clustering, outlining, asking questions, keeping a journal, visualising your topic and freewriting. While all these prewriting strategies are useful, I personally would recommend the following three in combination that are especially useful in the writing of academically oriented essays.

  • Freewriting: Freewriting means literally writing freely on your topic, noting on paper any ideas you have on the topic. Do not worry about whether what you write is ‘right’ or not. Do not worry about spelling, grammar, wording, organisation and sentence structure. Freewriting can take any form: lists, clustering bubbles or simply scribbling. Freewriting also includes jotting down immediately on paper any ideas that pop up in your mind. To do this, having a small notebook or a piece of scrap paper with you all the time is important.

    There are two obvious benefits for freewriting. First, it effectively overcomes writer’s block. As writing well is not easy and involves a lot of hard labour, freewriting provides an intermediate stage for writers to engage in carefree writing before they set out on the more serious business of writing a decent draft. Second, freewriting helps disentangle our mind, which is very often inundated with a messy and chaotic mass of thoughts. By writing ideas down, we help ease the burden in our mind and are freer to think further on the topic. In any case, sorting out ideas on paper is always easier than tidying up ideas in our mind.

  • Reading: Topic-related readings (e.g. from books, research articles, Internet resources) provide a rich source of information. Reading itself is also excellent in stimulating our thinking, providing further ideas for our essays. What have other people written about the topic or related topics? How are my ideas related to theirs? How is my purpose different from theirs? How can I incorporate some of their ideas into my essay? With such questions in mind, reading often stimulates our thoughts and may contribute useful essay ideas.

  • Talking to other people: Being willing and ready to communicate to others whatever ideas we have on our topic, what we intend to write and sometimes even our difficulty in getting ideas for our topic helps bring in fresh new ideas or clarify some old ones. We do not have to restrict who we want to share our thoughts with and they can be anybody who is willing to listen to us, including our peers, our family, our professors and even we ourselves. As soon as possible after the conversation, engage in some freewriting again so that ideas that crop up in the discussion can be noted down.

Practising some exploratory writing to generate ideas for essays can be a liberating and empowering process for all writers, beginning or professional. It helps us to discover and write down what is deep within our mind and to strip off superficiality and hollowness from our writing. If you practise this exploratory writing process for all your writing assignments, you may discover that writing is a challenging, but nonetheless exciting and fulfilling, activity.


Further Reading

Elbow, P. & Belanoff, P. (2000). A Community of Writers: A Workshop Course in Writing (3rd ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Lynn, S. (1997). A Short Guide to Writing. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

McDonald, S. & Salomone, W. (2000). In Brief: A Handbook for Writers. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.


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