Understanding the question

Starting to answer the question: brainstorming

You have the power to rebuild it

Now you’ve broken your essay title down into its component parts to make sure you understand what you are being asked to do, you can start to think about how to start working towards an answer. The first method we’re going to look at is called ‘brainstorming’. Brainstorming means ‘attempting to find a solution to a problem or question by collecting spontaneous ideas’. Some tutors don’t like this technique. They complain that it encourages disorganised thinking and therefore disorganised writing so that some student essays look as if they are all storm and no brain. So remember: brainstorming is only ever the first stage of the essay writing process.

How to do it

Brainstorming means taking a pen and paper and writing quickly and intensively for a short period of time. Don ’t worry about getting things in a particular order: just get as much down on paper as you can. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. Some people prefer to write continuously i.e. they just start and keep going in one great big sentence. Some people prefer to make very quick lists of points under headings. Other people prefer to organise their ideas visually. They might take an A4 sheet of paper and divide it into three horizontal areas, one for each of the key areas in the essay: ‘heart disease’, ‘cholesterol’ and ‘screening programmes’. They would then group short notes around those topics. It’s best to experiment and find the way that works best for you. There are two types of brainstorming you can do: ‘positive’ and ‘negative’.

Positive brainstorming

Take a pen and a sheet of paper and spend approximately ten minutes writing down everything you know and think about a subject. For example, you might start by trying to write quick definitions of all the key terms in the question: ‘heart disease is…’ etc, etc. Then you might remember that you had a lecture on cholesterol last week and were given handouts at the end about resultant health problems. Or you might remember that your tutor said in last week’s seminar that there’s some interesting new research on cholesterol. Or you might remember there’s a chapter on heart disease and cholesterol in one of your course books. Or you might think ‘we haven’t started using book X yet – perhaps there’s a section in there’. So this process will help you to access things you already know; and it will help you to think about where to get evidence to back up what you know.

Negative brainstorming

Now take another sheet of paper and spend approximately ten minutes writing everything you don’t know about the question, what you need to know and what you are going to do to find out. For example, in your positive brainstorm you might have written quite a lot about heart disease and cholesterol but you might know nothing about screening programmes and their usefulness. Where are you going to go find out? You might start by jotting down names of likely journals or databases or articles or names of likely course books. This is also the place to ask yourself questions about what you don’t know. This will help you to think about how to use all the resources that are available. So you might ask yourself questions like: Is there more than one type of screening programme? And, if so, is one type more effective than others?

It’s a bit like cooking

Of course, you can do your positive and negative brainstorms at the same time. You might divide an A4 sheet into two vertical columns and head one ‘what I know’ and the other ‘what I don’t know’. The important thing is to think about the process as if you are thinking about cooking something you’ve never cooked before. First, you look at the recipe to see what ingredients and equipment are needed. Second, you look in your cupboards and fridge to see what ingredients and equipment you’ve already got. Third, you make a list of what ingredients and equipment you need to buy.

Do it with friends

Brainstorming is a problem-solving technique originally developed for use by groups of people. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t do it with friends or classmates from your course. This isn’t cheating. You sometimes hear phrases like ‘the agreed body of knowledge on this subject’. This is because academic knowledge is a collaborative process. Scientific researchers work together in teams. Articles are only published in journals when they’ve been read and criticised by other experts in the relevant field. Students can and should work together too. This is worth repeating: Students can and should work together.

Fear of a white page

Brainstorming an essay topic with friends can help you feel less isolated. Brainstorming itself is very useful in overcoming that ‘rabbit in the headlights’ feeling we all get when first confronted by an essay title. Brainstorming will help you get past that feeling that you can’t start writing until you know what the first sentence is going to be. Brainstorming helps you realise you can ‘just start writing’.