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

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