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

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