Brainstorming Ideas

Here are some brainstorming activities and techniques we find to be effective especially when we’re stuck or hesitant to start a project:

Writing Down Ideas:

Writing down all your ideas in one place to compare and contrast them is a good idea. If you have a collection of notes on your topic, read over them and pick out the pieces of information that stand out most to you, then rewrite them on a new sheet of paper so you have a grasp of what is most interesting to you.


Force someone who isn’t interested in your topic (or, better yet, someone who is, if you can find one) to listen to all your ideas. This is a good way to figure out which of your many leads you may want to follow because you will likely naturally blab the most about the one you have most evidence on and passion about. Also, if the person you talk to is in the same class you can help each other with ideas.

Following an Idea:

Try following your first idea to its conclusion. Force it when it seems like a stretch. You will probably not end up using it if it turns out to be imperfect, but it will still break the ice, build your confidence on your topic, provide a possible fallback, or show you where you can’t go.


        Depending on the topic of the writing assignment, research may be a useful way to brainstorm. If you are asked to write about a literary novel, learning about the context in which it was written may provide valuable insight to your analysis. Also, understanding why the author wrote certain ideas or arguments into their text may sway you in one direction or the other if you are writing a persuasive essay. For an essay on a broader topic, find current news events that you can relate to your analysis or use to strengthen your position in an argument.

Continuous Writing:

        Even if you think you have run out of ideas, keep writing. It does not disadvantage you at all, even if you think your thoughts are not coherent or even related. Write when you are tired. Write when you are bored. Write when you think you have nothing left to say. When you come back to your paper later, you may find that you actually have written from a perspective that you would not normally have.  

Word Map:

        You may perceive drawing to be an act that should be relegated to your much younger years, but it is still very relevant today. As a writer, writing down important words or ideas on paper can be extremely helpful. Visualizing your thoughts gives them agency that is more concrete than when they remain in your head. Being able to physically see the random words and concepts you associate with your paper’s topic helps you efficiently organize your paper. You can move ideas around and test how they fit together; in connecting these ideas, you may find relationships between thoughts that had originally seemed completely unrelated.

Thesis First:

        Many people tend to take an inductive approach in beginning an assignment by gathering the evidence they want to use and then creating a hypothesis that covers all of the points this information supports. Using a deductive approach instead may lead to new and exciting discoveries; try formulating a hypothesis first and then dig around for textual evidence that supports what you want to say. Rather than allowing a handful of quotes to guide your writing, force the text to align with what you want to say.

Idea Clouds

Reading can be boring at times, even confusing. In my experience, these moments of boredom and incomprehension come when I’m reading something assigned- in other words, something I need to understand.

So what’s one to do in this situation? Most take the unproductive route and doodle- it’s human nature. But I’ve found a better way to cope: idea clouds!

Making an idea cloud feels like doodling, but the result reads like a note. An idea cloud is a grouping of words referring to the main points of an argument; the more repeated the idea, the bolder it is written in the idea cloud. These are great for reading assignments because they help a reader organize ideas, either in a paragraph, on a page, in a chapter or the whole book. They’re great for boring reading assignments because they give the reader something to do with their hands.

How can idea clouds function in the tutoring process? I’ve learned that they are a useful way to organize ideas at any stage in the writing process. When tutoring someone early in the brainstorming process, with a lot of ideas and little direction, they can visually represent the prominence of these ideas in relation to each other. Say someone is rambling through various points. The tutor can start writing down ideas that the tutee keeps returning to- the result organizes the tutee’s ideas for them!

When reading a completed draft, creating an idea cloud can demonstrate to the writer what their tutor gleamed from their piece. If the tutor and writer don’t interpret the piece in the same way, the idea cloud can indicate to the writer what needs to be revised.

In reading and writing, idea clouds translate jumbled thoughts onto paper.

Synesthesia and Writing

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines synesthesia as 1.) “a concomitant sensation; especially:  a subjective sensation or image of a sense (as of color) other than the one (as of sound) being stimulated” and 2. “the condition marked by the experience of such sensations”.

To a person with synesthesia, the color yellow might sound like a symphony and the wind might taste like copper.  We find examples of synesthetic language in everyday idioms.  Take for example the phrases “bitter cold”, “actions speak louder than words”, “taste the rainbow”, or “green with envy”.  Frigid air is not literally bitter, yet the association of tactile and gustatory sensation enriches the image.  We, as readers, are urged to physically participate through sensory comprehension.  Synesthesia is a powerful literary device—it brings writing to life through direct expression of the author’s particular imagination.

     Now, I’m sure you are all wondering how synesthesia relates to tutoring writing.  The answer is animation.  Allow us to explain.  Anton Chekov once said:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

As Chekov so aptly demonstrates, the key to “good writing” is to show rather than to tell.  Writing is a medium with which we, as narrators of our own minds, articulate the subjective experience.  At least that is how we would like to imagine it. And more often than not, when we write with this ideal in mind, we write confidently and boldly.

As tutors, we should be careful not to overcomplicate the task of writing. Sure, to write an academic piece is to participate in a conversation, to deftly navigate the rhetorical conventions of the genre, but students shouldn’t cling too closely to structure. In tutoring, we should encourage students to be bold and find their voices as writers. This means trusting the immediate associations that they form, regardless of whether the end result fits perfectly with academic conventions.

The Magic of PIE

Everyone loves pie.

Whether it’s this kind of pie:

or this kind:

Pie symbolizes many things: an irrational number, math geekiness, a yummy treat, forgiveness, motherly love,  true Americanness… the list goes on.

In my house, everything good starts with a pie. And in 7th grade, I learned to start all of my writing with one too.

My mom has always said, “It’s always best to start with a piece of pie.” She is a prolific pie baker. She got it from her grandma: her talent as well as her award-winner, eye-rolling, mm-mm-good swearing, recipe for pie crust.

I always know when something important is about to happen because I walk into the house and it smells like buttery dough and caramelizing sugar, and flour dust hangs in the air. Mom presents the pie on the kitchen peninsula, and sits herself on the stool to start whatever it is that we’re starting. And I always know that it’s going to be a doozy.

It runs in the family. Graingers say “I’m sorry” with pie, “I love you” with pie, “let’s get to work” with pie, and “it’s time to quit” with pie. I’m simultaneously happy, sad, forgiving, ashamed, and excited writing about it now.


My seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Dewey, had a system for everything. Attempting to teach us how to write a 5-paragraph essay, she showed us PIE.

P stands for Point. Academic writers learn to write deductively–say what you want to say first, and then explain to the reader why you are right. The point is the shortest part of the paragraph. It is typically one sentence written in active voice (Subject, Verb, Object). Pro Tip: If you’re having trouble meeting the requirements of the Point, try to write the rest of the paragraph first, then come back to it. Some people think inductively, which is not currently valued in academic writing. You should not be punished for it, but instead use it to your advantage: know what you want to say, and then put together your topic sentence.

I stands for Illustration. Find a quote or quotes, passages from sources, or results-based proof for your topic sentence. Connect the pieces together with bits of analysis. Pro Tip: If you’re starting on this step, find a piece or group of evidence that speaks to you. This is usually centered around a common theme.

E stands for Explanation. Put simply, explain why your Illustration proves your Point. However, this process is consistently more difficult than it looks. Connect the illustrative pieces of the paragraph together, and also introduce any counterarguments. Pro Tip: Start small by asking yourself, “What pieces of the Illustration are useful?” This could be a grouping of individual words, organizational structure of the quote, syllables per line, common theme–anything really. The most important thing is to identify it and then proceed to relate it to the Point. BONUS Pro Tip: For all of you inductive thinkers out there, this is the section where you will discover your Point. Reduce your explanation to a single sentence and move it to the start of the paragraph.

Example Paragraph:

(P) Pie is the best food to use when asking for forgiveness. (I) Once my mother and I got ourselves into a huge argument about where I would apply for college. She contended that I needed to apply to an all-women’s institution, like Barnard or Smith. I refused because I was 17 and obstinate. I told her, “It’s my life, Mom! Everyone at school thinks I’m a [redacted expletive], bra-burning, unshowered, feminist like you. The last thing I need is a school without boys.” Needless to say, she stormed out. I felt terrible. I had called my mother “unshowered” for God’s sake! So, the next day after school, I baked a blueberry pie. She came home from work, and there I was at my stool with it on the peninsula. Tears in her eyes, she came over and we both apologized: her for being controlling and me for being unbelievably rude. (E) There was no need to wait for a break in the conversation or an awkward Come to Jesus moment when she came home. The pie said it all. It was a warm, sweet reminder of love, asking for forgiveness during a tense time. The pie showed that I respected my mother as well as our family tradition without a single word needing to be said. Although it was a nice compromise and ended a feud, as she was getting up from her stool, Mom turned to me and said, “I’m not paying for anything if you don’t at least apply to one” and slapped a Barnard application down in front of me. She may have won that battle, but in the end, I won the war by going to an women’s college that recently turned coed. I have the pie to thank for that; it was efficient and delicious.


PIE (both the food and the process) is warm, sweet, and homey. It’s the comfort I fall into when I don’t know where to begin. I diverge from it, of course, churning out brownies, cakes, cookies, and the occasional ribeye steak to communicate with people I care about, but PIE is always a good place to start.

In my experience, pie is universal; while not omnipotent, it does present a starting point by which to start all important discussions, decisions, writing, and thinking.