Skip to Main Content
National College of Ireland


Academic Writing Skills Guide: Brainstorming Techniques

Why should you brainstorm?

Brainstorming can help you capture what you already know and think about an assignment topic; although usually done at the beginning of the writing process, it can be done at any point. It can also be good to see what ideas you can come up with yourself before commencing your research. It can be a very effective means of getting whatever is in your head down on paper. This is a really valuable stage which many people miss out, but it makes your reading and planning much easier if you note down your initial thoughts about the assignment as this automatically makes you engage with the topic. 

Reduces Writing Anxiety

The goal of brainstorming is usually to overcome writing anxiety and gather ideas to start writing an assignment. This can free up some headspace when you are feeling overwhelmed and cannot decide where to go with an assignment topic. By investing time in this process, it can help you avoid getting stuck for ideas halfway through and suffering writer's block. Whether you are starting with too much information or not enough, brainstorming can help you to put a new writing task in motion or revive a project where you feel you have got stuck part way through.

How do you start brainstorming?

Figuring out what you already know about a topic/subject is a good starting point for any assignment. Generating some initial ideas and giving your topic some thought is an important stage and you should do this before rushing into research. It also ensures that your assignment is being led from what you already know and you can then start reading and researching around the points you have identified as a starting point.

Make a note of the things you need to find out, you do not know or need further evidence for. This will be your ‘to do list’. By doing this, you will use your time more efficiently by reading and researching strategically and not wasting time making notes on areas that you do not need. You can pinpoint what you need to find out and go straight to the parts of books, chapters, articles that will be most relevant.

How do you use your brainstorming ideas?

When reviewing your ideas, check them against the assignment topic and guidelines set by your lecturer. Once you are happy with the ideas you have generated, you can use them to inform the development of the next stage of your assignment—research and planning. Brainstorming can be an important ingredient in the earlier stages of planning an assignment. In the early stages of your thinking you may not be sure which of your ideas you want to follow up and which you will be discarding.

While reading and making notes are an important part of the assignment process, allocating time to think about the assignment topic can be extremely useful. Brainstorming can help you develop an approach to your topic when you start linking your main ideas, grouping ideas together and eliminating those that may be irrelevant. It can help you to identify the main themes and the points you will make. This can be useful when you come to structure your assignment.

A common mistake students make when brainstorming is to stop after writing down only a few ideas. Ideally, you are trying to encourage a flood of ideas. Think about any ideas, theories, processes or examples that you already know something about (from module reading material and lectures) that might relate to the assignment question.

There are many different ways to brainstorm, and there is no correct way to do it – see other examples below including Free Writing, Mind Mapping and others to help you kickstart your thinking for an assignment.

Why use the free writing technique?

After you have read an assignment brief, you may have lots of ideas or you may have very few. Either way, it can be beneficial to engage in some free writing activities that can help you get some initial thoughts down about your assignment topic. Free writing also helps to start the process of writing which for many students can be one of the hardest parts of doing an assignment.

Even if you do not know what to write, the act of writing itself will help generate ideas. Free writing will help you get your thinking out of your head and down on paper. The advantage of this technique is it can enable you to generate ideas when other methods fail, freeing up your internal critic and allowing yourself to write things you might not write if you were being too self-conscious. 

How to Do It

The idea is to write without stopping for a set amount of time (15, 20 or 30 minutes) or within a certain page limit to demonstrate how much you already know. Do you have any opinions at all about the topic(s)? Write them down, no matter how ‘creative’ or non-academic they may be. You often know more than you think...

  • Write/type as quickly and continuously as you can with any ideas you may have, in any order – try not to lift your pen from the paper or your hands from the keyboard
  • Do not worry about writing proper sentences, or using correct punctuation, grammar or spelling – concentrate on writing something; simply write anything and everything that comes to mind about your topic. 
  • Scribble ideas fast, in any order – whatever comes into your mind. Write down every idea you can think of about your topic, no matter what it is, you can go over it later - no one else is going to see it
  • Think about any ideas, theories, processes or examples that you already know something about (from module reading material and lectures) that might relate to the question.


Get Something on Paper
If a blank sheet of paper scares you, doodle on it – getting something on there might help make it a little less intimidating. Freewriting is intended to be free-flowing, to be a time in which you let your ideas and words flow without caring about organisation, grammar, and the normal formalities of academic writing.
Minimise distractions by turning your phone off and temporarily disconnecting internet access on the device you are using. Then select View in Microsoft Word and Focus – this should help you concentrate for the fixed time you have given yourself for this task.
Keep Writing
The crucial point is that you keep on writing even if you believe you are saying nothing. Even if you write nonsense, the act of forcing yourself to write can help you overcome writer’s block. To use this technique properly, you need to silence your inner critic until a later stage in the writing process and allow yourself to write whatever comes to mind. Your goal is to let the words flow without analysing or judging them. Write for the entire time, without stopping. If you cannot think of what to say and find yourself stuck, simply write the same word over and over or write ‘I don’t know what to write’, ‘I am stuck’ or ‘I am waiting for ideas to come’ until you think of something else to say.
Write in Your Own Language
If English is not your first language and you have an idea but cannot express it well in English, use words or concepts from your first language to fill in the gaps. You can look up the words in English later.
Resist Editing and Revising
If you find it hard to resist fixing errors in your writing as you go along, cover up the page as you go or, if you are using a computer, adjust the screen so you cannot see what you are writing. Try dimming, covering or turning off the monitor/screen or turning the font to white – this can help you write with greater speed and freedom of thought. With no visual indicators telling you if you are spelling things correctly or other concerns, you may find yourself more focused on ideas rather than grammar and punctuation. Alternatively, try turning off any automatic spell/grammar checkers on your computer which may also distract you during the process.
Reviewing What You Have Written
When you have completed your time/page limit, read back over the text. Even though there will be plenty of unusable content, you should also find some ideas that have potential. Transfer any information that has potential to an ideas sheet so you can consider them for inclusion in your assignment. Even if you find little or no content through this process, you should feel that you have at least removed writer’s block or reduced your anxiety. If you feel the need to generate more ideas, you can repeat the process by focusing on a particular idea generated by the first session or you can move on to a more specified freewriting session in response to specific reading material you have looked at (see below).

Free Writing in Response to Specific Reading Material

If you find that your mind is blank and you are having difficulty generating ideas, you may find it beneficial to provide a trigger to your thinking. Try reading a relevant chapter from a core textbook on your module reading list or refer to the most relevant PowerPoint presentation from your lecturer on your Moodle page.

Next, try free writing in the following three stages (perhaps 15 minutes in total but you decide).

Spend the first session summarising what you have read or heard.
In the second session, look back over the summarised material and write any questions that you may have about it, writing down what was not clear to you, what you liked or did not like about the material, and any thoughts you may about the strengths or limitations of the material.
In the last session, try to connect the new material to other things that you already know or ideas you already generated from brainstorming your topic.


This may work better for some students, as you are free writing in response to specific material you have read rather than having to begin the process solely by yourself.

Why Use Mind Mapping?

Mind mapping is useful for organising and planning for an assignment as it can help you to think about your topic in a structured way. The advantage of mind mapping is that you can see a visual representation of your thinking, how things tie together and see connections you may not otherwise have considered. This may be a very useful technique for visual learners and help make it easier to move on to putting together a provisional outline for an assignment or research topic. It can help you to understand the links and relationships between ideas in a way that may not be clear from just writing notes and helps you to choose keywords to search for further information.

Mind mapping can be helpful for:

  • brainstorming all the things you already know about an assignment question
  • planning the early stages of an assignment by visualising all the aspects of the question
  • organising your ideas and information by making it accessible on a single page
  • revising and preparing for tests and exams or taking notes during a lecture

How to Do It

You can draw a mind map by hand or by using a software tool (see suggestions below). The idea is to come up with as many ideas as you can; get your ideas down in any order and then see what links and relationships you can find. Do not censor yourself and discount ideas or worry about the order at this stage, it is more important to write all of your ideas down first. Use lines, arrows, speech bubbles, branches and different colours as ways of showing the connection between the central theme/main idea and the different ideas which stem from that focus. The links and relationships are important, as the ideas you are generating may form the beginnings of your assignment structure and paragraphs.

  • To really let yourself go in this brainstorming technique, use a large piece of paper. You may find it beneficial to place your page on the side, in landscape orientation, which is easier for drawing purposes.
  • Write out the main idea/topic in the middle of your page and circle it.
  • Draw lines or branches from your main idea and write down related ideas at the end of each line/branch. Draw a circle or box around each one. You can write individual words, phrases or symbols, but do not write full sentences. Write down as many related ideas as you can think of.
  • Think of more ideas, examples, facts, or other details relating to each main sub-topic. Write each of these near the appropriate circle, circle them as well, and draw connecting lines between the new ideas and the appropriate sub-topic.
  • Try using post-its so you can move terms around as your map develops; limit yourself to one idea or thought per post-it note.
  • Use UPPERCASE or bold for key terms. Use colours to highlight topics, ideas and connections if it helps to make it more visual.
  • Do not stop and think too much and do not plan. Remember, it is meant to look messy. At this stage, it is not about focusing on grammar, structure or planning, but just on stirring up your thinking to bring out all that you know about the topic before you start researching the topic.
  • Do not worry about the sense of what you write, you can keep or lose any of these ideas once the activity is over.
  • Repeat this process until you cannot think of any more details.

How do you use your mind mapping ideas?

You can use a mind mapping diagram as a way to sort out connections between the ideas and areas that you need to research and as a basis for your initial assignment writing plan. Maps are personalised and provide an opportunity to organise material in a way that makes most sense to you. 

Rewrite the information under headings and sub-points to make the mind map easier to read; turning the mind-map into a linear list of points can help form your initial assignment structure. As you start to make decisions about how to approach and structure your topic, this method can also help you to identify the main themes that you need to research to back up your writing. Even after you have begun the writing process, you can still return and do another round of brainstorming whenever you feel stuck or need to get greater clarity on an aspect of your topic.

Asking Questions

This can be another useful approach to get yourself started on writing an assignment. Here, you write down all the questions you have that seem relevant to your assignment, anything you feel you need to clarify. By generating a lot of questions, as well as forcing yourself to contemplate answers to those questions, you can generate ideas as well as further establish what information you need to look for when researching the assignment.

If you struggle to come up with questions yourself, try using the six journalistic questions to get ideas for your assignment. Below are some possible questions you can ask about your topic – these are generic and not relevant to all assignments but they may at least inspire you to think of questions that are relevant:

  • Who discovered your topic?
  • Who benefits from your topic?
  • Who is affected?
  • Who uses your topic?
  • What is your topic?
  • What is the importance of the topic?
  • What are the uses for your topic?
  • What are the benefits of your topic?
  • What is the problem?
  • What are the issues related to the problem?
  • Where did your topic originate?
  • Where does the activity take place?
  • Where is your topic used the most?
  • Where does the problem or issue originate?
  • Where is the cause of the problem most visible?
  • When was your topic made?
  • When is the issue most apparent?
  • When did the issue or problem develop?
  • When is action needed to address the issue or problem?
  • How is your topic related to other events?
  • How is the issue or problem significant?
  • How can it be addressed? How can the issue or problem be resolved?
  • How is your topic changing?
  • How has your topic changed our world?
  • Why should we care about your topic?
  • Why did you choose to write a paper on this topic?
  • Why did the issue or problem arise?
  • Why is your topic an issue or problem at all?
  • Why did the issue or problem develop in the way that it did?
Asking questions can be a useful way to develop a lot of information about a topic quickly. However, learning to ask the right questions about a topic takes practice. While writing, you may need to go back and ask who, what, where, when, why, and how questions again to expand on important points in your assignment.


Listing, as its name suggests, is a brainstorming technique in which you just make a list of ideas. For some students, creating lists or bullet points is a more effective way of brainstorming when planning their writing.  The advantage of this technique is that it enables ideas to be generated more quickly than with clustering/mindmapping, as the ideas can be written in any order. This method can develop into just a brief outline of the main points for each theme of the writing, or a more detailed plan with sub-points and a note of the evidence to support each point (including referencing details).  Using outlines or bulleted lists will allow you to see how ideas follow on from or link to each other. Do not censor yourself or worry about whether or not something will be useful—just list as many ideas as you can as quickly as you can. At this stage, every idea is worth considering. Allow yourself to simply pour out all the thoughts that are in your head.

Take five or ten minutes to list every word or phrase you can think of related to your topic. Only jot down words and phrases rather than full sentences; no one has to understand the list except you. If you use Microsoft Word, select View and Focus – this can help minimise distractions during the listing process. When you have finished, you can look at your list and begin moving ideas around and reorganising the lists, linking any interrelated themes/subtopics you may find. As you review your list, you should find yourself revising and editing it by adding or deleting items.

Recording Your Thoughts

Try talking out loud about your topic and record yourself – if you come up with some ideas that way, it may help reduce your anxiety and make it easier for you to start writing. Listen back to the recording and note down any relevant points that you have made, or comments that you think are important. Then use these as the bare bones for your plan. It is sometimes easier to verbalise your thoughts or initial ideas about an assignment than it is to write them down.

If you have tried some of these strategies and are still stuck, you may need to do some more research. After all, you cannot formulate ideas if you do not understand your topic. You may just need to take a break; many writers find ideas come to them more easily when they step away and focus on something else.

Keep up to date on any library news and resources by following @NCILibrary on Facebook Twitter Instagram

Communications from the Library: Please note all communications from the library, concerning renewal of books, overdue books and reservations will be sent to your NCI student email account.