Along with the Topic Exploration/Loop Exercise, the following suggestions may be helpful in finding a focus and beginning to "flesh-it-out." All of these ways to get started are only suggestions and are not required for all writing. Each student should find what works best for them, and use that approach, even looking up the possible topic in encyclopedias, etc. can suggest some interesting possibilities.

Once a topic idea(s) has been identified and some form of brainstorming has been done to "flesh-out" the direction you want to go, a very helpful step is to write it in story form, e.g., The story of why building on a beach is a bad idea.  Since virtually everything (events, ideas, etc.) has "its" own story, many elements of narrative can help build the foundation of any writing. Topic explorations and other "brainstorming" methods pull together elements that relate to the topic, but the "point" of the account--the claim/thesis/meaning--may best be clarified by things we find in a story: time-line, setting, events, principle figures, description, reflection, the problem to solve and its resolution.

There are lots of ways to tell the story: maybe start with a first-hand account, use flashback, the present or even flash forward, to convey important elements; sketch a person or place that may be key to the topic; and state or build to the problem that is part of the topic. Even formal academic or professional writing centers around a basic story of the problem to be considered. Some examples: H.pylori: The Hidden Bacteria; The H.pylori Story. This kind of material needs documented evidence, the elements required by the discipline and it becomes a readable, convincing account.... JT

Professional writer, Brian Westover, presents the following:

Writers, students and anyone else will occasionally need an idea or two. While you may have times when ideas come with little or no effort, there will be times when the fountain of creativity seems to have dried up. Have no fear, however. Even if you're not feeling particularly creative, you can still think and reason. By thinking clearly and using the following techniques, you'll find an endless supply of ideas.

Free-writing - Just write. Don't worry about format, topic, or anything else. Just write, about anything at all. It might be a description of your kitchen ceiling, or a diatribe about the lack of parking spaces at your local veterinarian's office. The important thing is that you get writing, and keep writing. Let one thought lead to another, or just write on one thing, in ever increasing detail. [Remember, don't worry, at this point, about grammar, mechanics or making "sense;" even set an alarm and write

freely for at leas 10 minutes, i.e.] Maybe you'll write for a set amount of time, or maybe your aim is to fill a page or multiple pages. Pick out individual topics, ideas, names or anything else. Whatever you do, you'll soon have many ideas to work with.

Breakdown - Take your initial topic, and write it at the top of the page. Divide the topic into subtopics, questions, themes, and such, listing them below. Continue to break down and list those subtopics as before.

Listing/Bulleting - List everything about the topic, then list any related phrases, keywords, questions, sources, etc. If you can think of it, add it to the list. Then take each item from the list, and do it again.

Cubing - Cubing refers to taking your topic and examining it from six different sides, like the six sides of a cube. Consider the topic in the following six ways: 

  1. Describe it
  2. Compare it
  3. Associate it
  4. Analyze it
  5. Apply it
  6. Argue for and against it

Now, examine your answers. Are there any connections between them? Do any themes emerge?

Similes - Complete the following sentence: [Blank] is/was/are/were like [Blank]. By comparing your topic to another, seemingly unrelated word, you'll begin to see new ideas about your topic, better understand different aspects of it, and new ideas will emerge.

Clustering/Mapping/Webbing - This technique allows you to expand on a topic in a freeform, organic manner. Write a keyword or words about your topic in the center of a blank page and draw a circle or box around it. Branch off in as many ideas as possible, connecting them visually to the topic. Then branch off from there. Go as far as you can or want to, continually branching off.

Parts - Look at the relationships between the whole, the parts and parts of parts. Make the following lists on opposite margins of a sheet of paper:


Part..............................Parts of Parts

Part..............................Parts of Parts

Part..............................Parts of Parts

Apply these labels to topics and subtopics, words, etc. Then draw conclusions about relationships, patterns, connections, etc.

Journalistic Questions (The Big 6) - Ask yourself the 6 important questions of journalism: 

  1. Who
  2. What
  3. When
  4. Where
  5. Why
  6. How

List related questions for each one, then seek out the answers; repeat as many times as you need to.

Outside the Box - Try approaching your topic from a totally different angle. Ask questions from a seemingly unrelated viewpoint. You might think in terms of occupations, academic subjects, demographic groups, cultural groups, etc. Examine it fully from each new perspective, jotting down every thought, question, commentary, interpretation, etc.

Charts/Shapes - Instead of words and phrases, think visually. Put things in terms of charts, shapes, tables and diagrams. If you can find photographs related to the topic, use them as well. List anything you see, any thoughts that come to mind and any conclusions drawn from the images.

Slanting/Re-slant - Examine an idea or topic in terms of purpose and audience. If stuck, think about a different purpose or a different audience. For example, if you're writing about married couples with the purpose of entertaining couples with at least five years of marriage, try looking at the topic from the newlyweds.

Referencing - If you have a basic idea or topic, look it up. Go to the dictionary, the thesaurus, the encyclopedia, an almanac, quote collection, any other reference. List any information. If you don't have a topic, open to a random page, pick any topic, then go from there.

Combination of Techniques - Start with any technique then apply another technique to the results. For example, after listing and bulleting on your original topic, try referencing each listed item.

Once you have used these techniques, you should have a list of the ideas produced. These ideas must then be organized in some way. You may start by listing them neatly, then categorizing them. Group them according to subtopics, put them into an outline, or try to sequence them in some way. The idea is simply to impose some sort of order on the disorganized results, giving you a clear collection of ideas to work with. Now equipped with these ideas and some related information, you'll have a better idea of what to work on in your writing.


Brian Westover is a freelance writer. In addition to writing articles for publication in standard print venues (such as magazines and newspapers), he is also a skilled copywriter, offering a variety of services to anyone who needs great online content, polished business writing in a professional format and editing and coaching to improve your own writing. In addition to his professional site, Brian also runs WriterSpot, a website dedicated to finding and organizing online resources for either the beginning writer or experienced writing professional.

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