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4 Techniques for Effective Brainstorming

What is the absolute worst way to brainstorm? To stare at a blank Word document until you figure out something (while avoiding the temptation of switching to a more interesting tab). Whether it's for an essay topic or a story you're writing, brainstorming always requires some inspiration. You can never rely on a technique that does it all for you. There are, however, techniques that can really help you out. Here are a few you could start with to find out what works best for you.


 1.  List of 100

 The idea is simple: write the numbers 1-100 on the page, then for each number write an idea that pops into your head. Don't be afraid of repeating yourself, just write down anything you think of until you have 100. Try doing it in one sitting, without taking breaks, so that you're really in the flow. This technique can be done in a Word file, but it might be better to dig out a nice notebook or at least a paper pad for this, because you want to be sitting comfortably and not be distracted by other tabs.

I tried this when trying to come up with a topic for a paper. I wrote down research interests that I have, and the unfiltered list really showed me what was on my mind. Writing everything down is essential for remembering everything in the end. It also makes it easier to categorise your ideas, e.g. by colour coding, further defining that themes are recurring.

 2. Brainstorming app

Nice if you're on the go, why not try out an app to help you make notes of your thoughts. There are quite a few out there, but for example SoloBrainstorming (for Android, see image above) proved to be pretty helpful. First you come up with a few themes relating to the problem/idea you want to process. Then by looking at the themes you write down any idea you come up with. In the end all your ideas are shown on the screen, and you can edit the list by dragging the best ideas to the top and deleting the bad ones. The finished list can easily be shared by email or other apps, which is a neat feature.

For iPhone users, App Store also has a selection of brainstorm apps, several of them free at least as a basic version.


3. Brainwriting in a group

Whether for a task for class or for a creative collaboration, if you have to brainstorm in a small group (say, 4-6 participants) you can try this technique. This is how you Brainwrite: everybody in the group has a piece of paper where they write down one idea before giving the paper to the person sitting on their left. Then it’s the duty of the person sitting to the left to write down some comments, further suggestions or constructive criticism for the first person’s idea. The paper is again sent to the next person in line, who can comment either on the original idea or improve the previous comment. The papers are sent a step left until they have circled the entire group. Depending on what kind of project we’re talking about, the group may want to discuss the results together, or start working individually based on the others’ comments.

So why is this better than just discussing things together? Brainwriting allows for all group participants to make their ideas heard, and nobody will have to be named secretary.

Mindmap created using the miMind app (Android)

4. Mindmaps

A classic, Mindmaps are for visualising the connections between ideas. Start from one main node, you jot down ideas in bubbles and connect them with lines. Don’t hesitate to connect an idea to more than one node. Again, you can find apps to help you with a nice layout for both Android and Apple. What I’ve noticed from Mindmaps is that it’s not just for brainstorming, it can also be used for learning (this fact is from a course in pedagogy, so it should be accurate!). It can be used as a way for note-taking, where you write down only key facts, which you then can review from your map.


But bear in mind! No matter which brainstorming technique you choose, remember that it’s called “storm” for a reason – it’s intense, fast and messy!

  • It might be best not to distract yourself. Some music in the background is good if you want, but avoid having the TV on and shut off your phone notifications.
  • Write down everything: even “bad” ideas can benefit your thinking in the sense that you can strive to do the opposite
  • As long as it makes sense, don’t focus on wording or grammar – you can fix that later in the editing stage (or before submitting it to your group mate)
Ylva Biri

Helsinki '18

Ylva is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki researching the linguistics of social media discourse. When not studying, procrastinating and overthinking, she enjoys shonen anime and trying out new foods.
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