Monday, May 23

Writing skills 1: generating ideas

When a writer begins a story, scene, or poem, there is always some kind of starting point: an idea, or perhaps several ideas. So, where do these ideas come from, and what can you do in order to have more successful ones? There are a number of techniques which can help:


As creativity researcher Csíkszentmihályi (1996) says, a writer needs to achieve the flow of engagement with their task, and it is important not to think how the end product will be received by critics.  Avoiding the 'fear of the blank page' can mean avoiding worrying (or even thinking) about the end product and how it will be received. Instead, the aim is to become immersed in the task.

Flow is the state of being relaxed but focused.
Image by premasagar
However, a bit of balance is required - getting too relaxed is not helpful!  Focus on a clear short-term goal can help to achieve this 'flow'.

Mind mapping

A mind map (see main article) is a method of note taking which links words and ideas in a cluster or spider-shaped diagram. Its non-linear form can be helpful in triggering non-obvious connections in your mind, and developing possibilities that might have been quickly discarded if they weren't down on paper.


Probably an overused term, especially in the workplace, but it still has its uses. The basic concept is to come up with a lot of ideas, however stupid they might seem at first. A later review stage is used to discard the less promising ones, but - hopefully - find one or two rough diamonds among the coal dust.

The key to brainstorming is to be non-critical.  Author Fay Weldon says that a writer needs two personalities: the creator of first drafts who is sloppy, emotional and impetuous, and the later editor who is argumentative, cautious and rational (Singleton and Luckhurst, 2000).


Freewriting is the author's equivalent of Sigmund Freud's technique, free association. Essentially it means letting one idea lead to another, without trying to consciously guide the process.  Freud believed that the process could uncover the id or unconscious mind.  Modern psychologists would probably see it as a way of switching off the conscious processes which direct and oversee human thought - your metacognition.

It can be useful to try freewriting first thing in the morning, as a sleepy state makes it easier to switch off this metacognition.  The subjects of your dreams can also feed in to the freewrite. But freewrites can also be directed, as in the following task...

Writing task

Gather a list of writing prompts - words, phrases or pictures will do, or compile some more detailed prompts from websites (e.g. here). Using a timer, set 5 minutes to brainstorm, mind map or freewrite on each one.  Give it a try! Better still, make it a regular starting point to your daily writing time.

Kitchen timer by pasukaru76

Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennia.
Singleton, J. and Luckhurst, M. (2000).  The Creative Writing Handbook.  Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave.