Freewriting and Listing Help

Updated on Sep 2, 2011

Brainstorming Ideas

How do you generate ideas? Some writers stare at a blank page waiting for inspiration, while others dive into a draft hoping ideas will come as they write. Both of these techniques take time and often result in disappointment. There are more productive ways to come up with material for your essay—both in terms of time spent and in the quality of that material. Whether you are assigned a topic, must come up with one on your own, or are writing under a time constraint, taking the time to focus and shape your thoughts will result in a better final product.

The most effective technique for focusing and shaping your thoughts is brainstorming—allowing yourself some time to make connections with your subject, noting everything and anything that comes to mind. In this lesson and the next, you'll learn four specific strategies for brainstorming. They may be used both to generate new ideas and to clarify those you already have. Brainstorming can also be used effectively when you are faced with a number of possible essay topics and must determine which is the best vehicle to express your unique thoughts and experiences. Some are better suited to a longer writing process, such as the college admissions essay, while others may be adapted for when you have a shorter period to complete an essay, as with the SAT.


Freewriting is probably the best-known prewriting technique. It works well when you have some thoughts on a topic, but can't envision them as an essay. Freewriting also functions as a developmental tool, nurturing isolated ideas into an essay-worthy one. People who use this technique often surprise themselves with what comes out on paper. It is common to discover a thought or point you didn't realize you had.

Specifically, freewriting means spending a predetermined period of time writing nonstop, focusing on a specific topic. In fact, freewriting should be called "flow writing, because the most important aspect to this prewriting technique is the flow, or momentum, that comes when you stay with it. It works best when you write in full sentences, but phrases are also effective. The key is to keep writing, without regard for grammar, spelling, or worthiness of ideas. Your speed will help keep you from editing or discarding any ideas.

Keys to Successful Freewriting

  • Resist the temptation to look back at what you have written during the process.
  • If you can't stay on topic, keep writing anything to maintain the flow.
  • Don't censor yourself; no one will see your freewriting, so commit every thought to paper.
  • Follow your ideas wherever they lead you.
  • When finished, read your freewriting with a highlighter, noting the most interesting and strongest ideas.
  • Try the process again after you've focused your topic; more ideas may be generated.


A student received the following essay assignment:

Adrienne Rich wrote: "Lying is done with words and also with silence." Do you agree? Use your personal experience and/or your observations to support your answer.

Here is the result of a short freewriting session:

Do I agree? I think so. Is it a lie if you don't say something when you know something? Not technically, but it has the same effect, doesn't it? I remember when I saw Jay with someone else but I didn't tell Karen. She never came out and asked me if Jay was cheating on her, but I knew. But that's not really a lie is it so what do you call it? But there are more important cases where not telling the truth can be deadly. Like if you know someone is planning to commit a crime, and you don't tell anyone. Didn't someone go to jail for not telling the police she knew about the Oklahoma City bombing before it happened? But that's not a lie, it's just not telling, so not telling is not the same as lying. But it can have equally terrible consequences. I guess the point is that you know a truth but you don't reveal it. So they're not the same but they do the same thing. People can get hurt. Unless you believe what you don't know won't hurt you. But that probably falls into the same category as a white lie. It's he other lies and other silences that are the problem.

During her freewriting session, this student came up with a couple of examples and, through them, found a tentative thesis for her essay. She also brought up some issues that will be central to her argument, including the definition of a lie and whether people have a moral obligation to speak up when they have certain kinds of knowledge. You can also see that the student has several run-on sentences, some repetition, and a very informal style. That is part of the freewriting technique.

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