Understanding the question

Other ways of getting started

Issue trees

This is a technique developed by an American writer called Linda Flower in a book called Problem Solving Strategies for Writing. Issue trees are particularly helpful if you are the sort of person who finds it easier to think in pictures or visual layouts. To make an issue tree, you write your main point or topic at the top of a sheet of paper. For our example essay, you would write ‘heart disease + cholesterol’. You would then start to list secondary points in descending order of importance so the next level of your tree might have three terms: ‘diet’, ‘lifestyle’ and ‘health education’. Then there would be branches coming off each of these three terms.

Questioning the question

Start to think about your essay topic by asking yourself questions about it. For our example essay these questions might include: What is heart disease? What are its main causes? What is cholesterol? How important is diet? What are the main studies and/or points of view?

The five Ws

When I was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Trinity and All Saints College, I did a lot of work with students writing journalism assignments. They told me about ‘the five Ws’. These are the five areas that a reporter focuses on when she’s writing a story. They make sure she communicates as clearly and as quickly as possible. The five Ws are: ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘why’. So you can try to pick out the five Ws in your essay topic as a way of organising your material. Some people add ‘how’ to the five Ws.

Clusters, mind maps and spiders

I already mentioned that some people like to brainstorm visually by writing the key topic in the middle of the page and grouping notes around. Clusters, mind maps and spider diagrams are more sophisticated ways of doing this. They work in similar ways to issue trees.

Put the essay’s main subject in the middle of an A4 sheet and draw a circle round it. Then think about ways you could break the main subject down and write these around the circled main term. Draw circles around these terms and connect them to the main one with lines or arrows. Then repeat the process for this second set of terms. Like issue trees, clusters, mind maps and spider diagrams are particularly helpful for exploring different areas of your subject and thinking about links between them.

Don’t forget that techniques like clusters, mind maps, spider diagrams and issue trees can be applied to all sorts of subjects – not just essays on health. You could use one of these techniques to think about the main events in the plot of a novel or the main differences and similarities between two management theories. For examples of mind maps, clusters and spider diagrams, have a look at Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab.