Mining ideas, or how to write well (part 3)

Mining ideas, or how to write well (part 3)
Taken from JP; Sunday, July 22, 2007
Now that we have all had a week to play around with the more staid prewriting techniques of brainstorming, the journalistic approach and listing, it is time for us to step out of academic writing’s confining safety and drop into creativity.

Just as last week’s skills, these idea-generating techniques give writing energy, honesty and originality. And, once again, these activities are meant to be fun, so come along and get happily messy.


The timed exercise is a staple of writing practice. The key to it is to write continuously for a pre-set amount of time, refusing to pause for any reason whatsoever.

Freewriting silences your inner-critic and gives you the freedom to get down those fresh-flashing thoughts hot as they appear.

The rules to freewriting are all about not having any rules: 1. Start with a topic at the top of the page. It does not matter what that topic may be. It can even be, “I’ve got nothing to write about.” 2. Let your hand go, keep it moving. Do not even lift it from the paper. Stalling is your critic attempting to gain control. 3. Do not edit. Do not reread what you have just written and do not cross out anything (The time for that is later in the writing process). 4. Have no worries. Grammar, punctuation, spelling, neatness do not exist in freewriting. 5. Be illogical. In freewriting, one plus one does not necessarily equal two. It may equal 23. Or a pair of fuzzy purple socks. (Who knows, it may even equal two.) 6. Write with courage. Frightening, naked thoughts are often the most energized.

Before your writing muscles strengthen, you may want to start freewriting with short limits such as five, seven or 10 minutes. There is no magic number. The power lies in your commitment to writing nonstop for that entire period.

Random book prompts

Bibliomancy is the practice of seeking spiritual insight by randomly selecting a passage from a holy book.

The art dates back at least 3,000 years from when folks peered into the I Ching for guidance. Since then, adherents of all the major religions have done the same with their own particular holy books.

And now you have the power to bring this deliciously groovy technique into the here-and-now by using it to mine your own writing ideas.

The steps are simple. Set a book — any tome at all — on its spine and let it fall open. Then, with your eyes closed, point to a place on the open page before opening your eyes and writing down whatever sentence, phrase or passage your finger has divinely chosen.

That is your writing prompt. You coddle it. You nurture it as you see fit. A timed freewriting perhaps would suit the prompt or a brainstorming or even a methodical listing. The options are limited only by your vision and your courage. What is guaranteed is that through bibliomancy, you will wander down paths of creation you would have never otherwise even known existed.

Jump into the unordinary

Daily lives can be boring and be even more boring to write about. Sometimes it is necessary to try a new angle when it comes to writing. Mix it up. If you normally write with Leonard Cohen in the background, put that old Canadian man to bed and give your daughter’s Pussycat Dolls a ride.

Use props, costumes, become someone new. Wear your maid’s housedress or your driver’s flip-flops. Buy a monocle, a cigarette holder, a feather boa. You could change your materials and try generating ideas with the precision of a jeweler on a series of Post-it notes or you could go in the other direction, becoming a kid who writes with a fisted-crayon on a large pad of drawing paper.

The point here is to find a new state of mind in which to write.

Pay attention to the ordinary

Writers keep track of the ingredients that make up life. They write about the tilt of grins, the roar of bajaj, the way shadows fall across sidewalks.

Take the above-detailed freewriting technique and use it to explore the ordinary. Select for your topic something so humdrum you never give it a second thought and freewrite about it. Your elbow, white rice, your husband’s eyebrows are all ripe, commonplace sources of ideas. Our task as writers is to find what’s special in the everyday.

Final thoughts

As we finish this three-part Mining Ideas series, we need to remember that practice is as practice does: It is the doing that cranks the taps.

Promise the time to yourself; schedule yourself a mere corner out of your daily schedule and soon you will be watching the ideas flow.

Andrew Greene is director of Academic Colleges Group English Jakarta (ACG). If you have any questions about English language courses or in-company training you can contact him at or tel. 7805636. His personal blog can be found at

Mining ideas, or how to write well (part 2)

Mining ideas, or how to write well (part 2)
Taken from JP; Sunday, July 08, 2007
Today, as promised in the last OnWords column, we will explore the whats and hows of various prewriting techniques.

So grab your pencil, a fat pad of empty paper and come along. Soon, with a little practice, you too will find joy within writing’s difficulties.

The skills you learn today, brainstorming, the journalist approach and listing, are geared toward academic writing. Next week we will delve into creative techniques that can help even the most constipated of nonfiction writers.

That caveat notwithstanding, all prewriting techniques produce ideas that inject energy, honesty and creativity into any writing.

The key to all of these techniques is that they must be approached playfully. At this stage in the process mistakes are not mistakes. All is a seed that may or may not take root.

Every sense, every thought that flashes in your brain needs to find its way to your paper. Nothing is wrong.


My favorite academic-prewriting technique is brainstorming. Also called mind mapping, clustering and all sorts of other things, it is not just a writing skill. It is a mnemonic that goes two ways by both boosting output and securing intake.

Brainstorming is effective because it mates the visual aspects of our beings with the verbal.

Besides its visual efficiency, I dig it since it is so easy to turn into an outline that is ready-made for writing. Just sprinkle in some lower-case characters, Roman numerals and there you go, a paper merely lacking verbs and signal words.

To brainstorm, you start by writing a topic in the dead center of a blank sheet of paper. Then you draw a circle around that topic. The topic can be a single word, phrase, picture or symbol — anything.

Then other words — associations — will start popping into your mind. These you write inside circles that are connected to the centered topic by lines radiating outward from the topic.

As more words come, you write these down while always drawing lines and circles showing how everything is strung to one another.

These associations become sub-ideas supporting their own web of ideas. Within five minutes you should have a fully-inked page regardless of topic.

Journalists’ approach

Journalists are taught to report on the five “w”s (who, what, where, why and when) and the one “h” (how). This grand idea is suitable for any writer writing on any topic. By addressing these questions during the prewriting process you will ensure that you are heavy with ideas once the writing starts.

A simple method of following the journalists’ approach is to do the same as you did with the brainstorming method.

Start with a topic circled in the middle of a paper. Then have each of the six outward pointing spokes represent a different “w” or “h”.

This is also a very quick and easy technique a person can use when needing to talk on any topic. My IELTS students have used it to great effect when it comes to the long turn of their speaking examinations.


This technique is very similar to brainstorming in that ideas are written down as they come to you. However, listing is more suitable when you need to whittle down a topic to a point.

For example, Indonesian cuisine is too broad a subject for the reach of most single papers. It needs to be narrowed down some. The course of thought could go like this:

* Indonesian cuisine

* available everywhere

* available at all hours

* eat at home

* kaki lima hawkers

* often spicy

By following this natural stream of thought you, the writer, would be left with the specific nugget of writing about the spicy food sold by the walking peddlers you eat at home.

This very well could be an interesting read.

Next week we shall, as mentioned above, get into techniques that are more creative and, in my opinion, more fun.

Until then, Happy Writing!

Andrew Greene is director of Academic Colleges Group English Jakarta (ACG). If you have any questions about English language courses or in-company training you can contact him at or 780-5636. His personal blog can be found at

Mining idea, or how to write well (part 1)

Mining idea, or how to write well (part 1)
Taken from JP; Sunday, July 01, 2007 Have you ever had something to write — perhaps a school report, a business proposal, or even just a simple letter for those back home?

So you set aside some time, cleared a space at your desk, put on some “writing music”, hunched forward over your pad and wrote … nothing … nil … naught?

Your brows huddled together, tangled with vacant thought. Your knuckles, a row of whitening little helmets of surrender, tightened around your pencil.

Tick, tock, the paper’s vacant nonchalance taunted you, dared you to put something down. But you didn’t — you couldn’t. You had nothing to say: Blankness there and nothing else.

Of course you have experienced this: We all have.

Writing is just about the most frightening of all the language skills.

With the exception of public speaking — itself a trauma so great that the majority of us fear it even more than we do the reaper’s grim embrace — the action of facing a blank pressed sheet of lined pulp armed with merely a No. 2 is something most try to put off as long as possible.

We either forget or are not aware that this dread of filling the empty page is something all writers experience — even the most accomplished.

I once read that James Joyce, perhaps the most celebrated novelist of the 20th Century, lamented after a friend caught him anguishing at his writing desk that he had not been able to pen more than seven words that day.

His friend, attempting to lift the author’s spirits said, “Seven? But … that’s good, at least for you!”

“Yes,” Joyce replied. “I suppose it is. but I don’t know what order they go in!”

And this from a literary god whose most distinguished work’s final chapter consists of a single sentence that runs on for nearly 50 pages.

When it comes to writing, what chance do us mere mortals stand?

While you may never become the next Joyce, Dr Seuss, or J.K. Rowling, you can become a strong and effective writer who enjoys the challenge and thrill of creating something out of nothing.

One of the early keys to this growth is learning the prewriting techniques.

These techniques generate ideas. The ability to create these first thoughts is vital since the act of actually getting started is often the toughest part of writing.

The initial ideas germinated by these techniques will liven your writing with energy, honesty and creativity.

First thoughts are powerful. Most of our lives are spent in a world made up of messages that have been prettied-up by our internal censors.

This is why it is so refreshing to meet someone who truly speaks his mind, a real straight-shooter. The prewriting techniques will teach you how to capture your thoughts at first spark before they have been altered.

First thoughts are egoless. Uncensored, they are your most honest (no matter how nutty that may in fact be), and therefore extremely potent.

An honest voice is the door through which strong writing walks. Writing that lacks an honest voice is timid and flaccid.

First thoughts breed creativity. The power and honesty created by the prewriting techniques will give you the freedom to be wrong, to be creative and to essentially write without fear.

While in this zone pieces seem to write themselves. By learning these techniques, you too can bathe in writing’s autopilot sweet-spot.

Next week you will learn what the prewriting techniques are, and discover how easy it is to master them and add them to your language-skill arsenal.

Good writing! Andrew Greene is director of Academic Colleges Group English Jakarta (ACG). If you have any questions about English language courses or in-company training you can contact him at or 780-5636. His personal blog can be found at