PenToPaper Series: Brainstorming


You've found the PenToPaper Series course on Brainstorming.

By now many of you understand some of the basics about writing, perhaps from other courses in our series. Sometimes, though, it's not about knowing "how" to write, the hardest part can often be knowing "what" to write, knowing where to start. Our goal in this course is to teach you how to take one of the very first steps in the writing process: brainstorming.


With completion of this course you (the learner) will able to...

1. Make a list of brainstormed ideas.

2. Distinguish the difference between Authority and Inquiry Lists.

3. Complete Authority and Inquiry Lists accurately.

4. Perform Freewriting activities with and without a prompt.

5. Organize ideas using an organizational chart.



1. Pencil and paper, or access to a text editor program, like Microsoft Word.

2. Internet access.



Please allow 1-2 hours for completion.

Getting Started

Course Guidelines

Please read the course guidelines below. If you've taken other courses in our PenToPaper series, the guidelines are the same. 

  1. This course is self-paced, meaning you may move through it at your own speed. However, we have ordered the sections this way to help you better learn the content, so we recommend to you stick with it. 
  2. Be sure to read through or listen to the content in each section. Then, move on to the practice components. If you think you already know some of the information, run through the practice in the section to double check.
  3. Use the section list on the left hand side to move from section to section or from page to page within sections. You can also use the page-turner buttons at the top and bottom of each page to move within sections.
  4. The Course Resources section houses helpful course materials, as well as sources and links to additional information on the topic.
  5. For more courses in this series or other series please visit: 

What is Brainstorming?

Brainstorming for Writing Ideas

What is Brainstorming?

At its core, brainstorming is way to help people develop new ideas. In the world of writing, brainstorming often comes as a pre-writing activity, one of the steps taken in advance of writing to help writers develop and track their ideas. As writers, we're often faced with having to come up with new, focused topic ideas for our essays, research papers, articles, and stories. Using brainstorming strategies, writers can more easily drum up ideas and narrow down topics. Sometimes brainstorming is done in groups, with classmates, study partners, or colleagues. Simply having a conversation with someone else, even if they're writing on a different topic, may help you come to and narrow down your ideas. 

Brainstorming, however, is often an activity writers do on their own (the focus of this course). Brainstorming strategies typically involve techniques like creating lists or organizational charts and quiet thinking and/or writing time.

Why Brainstorm?

Many students ask why brainstorming is so important, as it seems like this step just adds more work to the already challenging process of writing. Consider this: Have you ever gone on a road trip without a map, or to the grocery store without a list? Chances are greatly increased that you ended up lost, or with three boxes of brownies, but not the bread or milk you'd originally gone to get. Nobody wants to face having to scrap pages of work after discovering the writing was off topic or not in line with the thesis. Skipping the pre-work doesn't often save time. Mapping your way in advance and making a list of what's important for you to remember cuts out a lot of the hassle you might experience and the extra work you might encounter otherwise. 

Before you start writing or researching (and chance going down the wrong path), do your thinking in advance. "Storming your brain"can help you to make smarter choices about whatever topic you choose to write on. These strategies can help you familiarize yourself with a subject, discover what you do and do not know about it, what you want to know, and what you need to know about it in order to write about it.

How do I Brainstorm?

There are two main steps to brainstorming, no matter the strategy you choose:

1. Come up with ideas

2. Decide which ideas are worth pursuing and which are worth discarding

At its most basic, brainstorming can be done by simply creating a list or lists, jotting down ideas that relate to the topic or that you think relate to the topic. Instructors in writing courses will often give a writing prompt, or choice of several prompts, to students to help kick off their thinking processes. A quick list of what you know about the topic(s) will often help you decide what's important to you about the given topic or which prompt is right for you given what you know.

An example: 

Let's say you've been asked to write an essay discussing whether or not college tuition should be free. By creating a simple list or two, you can begin to figure out what you already know on this topic and determine which side of the topic you'd like to argue. 

Start by listing what you know, or what you think you know. 

Remember: This is just for you, so as long as you can read it, any messiness or misspellings don't matter.

Free college tuition

  • saves students $
  • NY just did this for in-state students
  • no financial aid needed
  • saves from having to get loans

Pay for college tuition

  • this has been working for a long time
  • $ goes to teachers
  • loans help build credit

Then add in what questions you have (if any) on the topic. These are highlighted below:

Free college tuition

  • saves students $
  • NY just did this for in-state students
  • no financial aid needed
  • saves from having to get loans
  • How do teachers and staff at college get paid?
  • Should all students get free tuition? 
  • What rules or restrictions does it or should it come with?

Pay for college tuition

  • this has been working for a long time
  • $ goes to teachers
  • loans help build credit
  • Maybe some students going for free create a gap amongst students? 
  • Maybe $ is equal to quality of education?

Now comes the part where you make decisions about the content you've listed or gathered. So, how do we do that? 

1. Consider your writing project. 

Does the writing project require anything specific? Are there page or word count requirements? Do I need six sources? Is there content I'm required to cover or include? 

What type of writing am I doing? An informative essay? A newspaper article? A research paper? Do I need to convince or persuade my readers (we call these folks our audience) of something? Who is my audience and what might be important to them?

Will I need or am I allowed to do research for this project? In other words, is the writing to be based on your own thoughts and opinions or can you use other sources to develop and support your ideas? 

 2. Consider what you know. 

Which list and/or items do I believe are most important? Are some items more important than others? Are some items not important at all? 

What list and/or items in the list am I most interested in? Which items do I already know a lot about? Which items do I want to know more about? Which items do I not really want to learn more about?

Do some items have stronger "legs", i.e. will some items take you farther than others? Are there some items that are more complex than others, meaning they may require more explanation or research? Are there any items that seem too simple or you think may not lead to a deeper discussion on your topic? Are there items that seem too complex for you to tackle? Are there items that could be broken down into sub-parts? 

3. Make the best decision.

Based on the parameters of this project, what I already know, and what I'd like to know, which list and/or items do I believe make the most sense to use? Which list is the fullest or has the most developed items or ideas? Which list makes more sense to me? Which items on the list best answer the prompt? Which items are most relevant to my main idea? Which items are most interesting to me?

Is my topic broad enough or narrow enough? Are my items (or list) simple enough or complex enough given my project and research requirements, as well as what I already know?Do I have enough material, with the information I already know and/or the information I plan to research, to meet any project length requirements? 

Practice: Making a list

Practice Making Your Own List

  1. Grab a pen and paper* or pop open a blank word document. 
  2. If you have an idea in mind, start your list by adding the first item. Use the image on the right as a reminder.
  3. Once you're done, consider our lesson and make some choices about what you think works. 
*Check our Course Resources page for free, printable lined paper.

Authority and Inquiry Lists

Creating an Authority List

What is an Authority List?

Creating an authority list may be the first step in your brainstorming process. Authority lists are made of all the things you already know about or what you already have authority over. Your list might include your skills, hobbies, and awesome things you’ve seen, like the butter cow at the Iowa State Fair. Or it could be roles you play, like sister, Sunday School teacher, or manager. 

Here's an example of an authority list in bullet-point form:

  • competitive swimming
  • Iowa State Fair butter cow
  • Older sister
  • Sunday School teacher
  • Bookstore manager

Looking at your list, are there items you know more about than others? Maybe you're an expert in one area, but only know a little about another. Take your brainstorm to the next level by ordering this list by which items you know better. 

Here's an example of an ordered authority list:

  1. Older sister
  2. competitive swimming
  3. Sunday School teacher
  4. Iowa State Fair butter cow
  5. Bookstore manager


Practice: Making Authority Lists

Here's your chance to make your own Authority List!

1. Grab your pen and paper*, or type your answer in the space provided below.

2. Make a list of at least 5 items you have some level of authority over. 

3. Put this list into numbered order.

Hint: Think about the things you know well. Maybe these are things you know how to do, or roles you play. If you're struggling, try asking someone who knows you well to give you some ideas about your areas of expertise.

*If you chose to work offline, please type "answer" into the space given below for further help checking your answer.

Creating an Inquiry List

What is an Inquiry List?

Inquiry lists are comprised of the things you don’t know about, but would like to. The word "inquiry" means asking questions, and when you "inquire" you are probing deeper, being curious. This list is comprised of things such as places you’d like to visit, like New Orleans, and skills you’d like to learn or roles you’d like to play, like hot air balloon operator, mechanic, or daycare worker.

Here's an example of an Inquiry List in bullet-point form:

  • New Orleans
  • Hot air balloon operator
  • Mechanic
  • Daycare worker
  • Make ice cream

Some may find it easier to write this list in question form. A simple change of form may jumpstart your brain into thinking about how to answer. 

Here's an example of the Inquiry List in question form:

  • What is New Orleans culture like?
  • How do you operate a hot air balloon?
  • How do I become a mechanic?
  • What education do I need to become a daycare worker?
  • How do make ice cream? 

Practice: Making Inquiry Lists

Try your own Inquiry List!

1. Grab your pen and paper*, or type your answer in the space provided below.

2. Make a list of at least 5 items you have some level of authority over. 

Hint: Think about the things you know well. Maybe these are things you know how to do, or roles you play. If you're struggling, try asking someone who knows you well to give you some ideas about your areas of expertise (this list can be in bullet-point form or not).

*If you chose to work offline, please type "answer" into the space given below for further help checking your answer.

Using Authority and Inquiry Lists

How to Use Authority and Inquiry Lists to Narrow your Writing Topics

Now that you understand the difference between an Authority List and an Inquiry List, it's important you learn how to use them to your advantage as you work through your writing ideas. Yes, you can use these lists independently to find topics or ideas, but together they're even stronger. 

1. Start with an Authority List. You can order this list, if it helps.

2. Choose one item. Be sure it fits your assignment or writing project. Hint: the more you know or like an item, the easier it will be to write about.

3. Create an Inquiry List for that item, listing the things you'd like to know about it. This list can be in question form, if it helps. 

Authority List

  1. competitive swimming
  2. daycare worker
  3. knitting
  4. traveling to Thailand
  5. fixing cars

Inquiry List for Item #1

  • How long is an Olympic swimming pool?
  • What are there main strokes of the sport?
  • What is the difference between competitive swimming and just swimming?
  • Can I teach myself to swim?
  • What is a Masters program?

4. Take a look at your list. In our first lesson of this course (What is Brainstorming?), we discussed the questions you can ask yourself about items on your brainstormed lists. Go back to this lesson, if you need a reminder. Using these questions, determine whether your topic or idea has "legs". 

If you think it might work for you, take a look at your Inquiry List. Are all the questions relevant? Are there questions you have about any item on this list, sub-questions you could ask to help you figure out all the points you need to know about your topic?  

If you don't think this topic or idea will work well for you, go back to your authority list and choose another item. Create another Inquiry List. Repeat this process of creating Authority and Inquiry Lists until you come upon a topic or idea that works for your writing project.

Practice: Putting It Together

Let's put these lists to good use!

1. Grab your pen and paper, or pop open a blank word document on your computer.

2. Use your original Authority List or create a new one.

3. Choose one item and create an Inquiry List for that item.

*If you chose to work offline, please type "answer" into the space given below for further help checking your answer.

Congratulations! You've completed the lesson!

Thanks for participating! You are ready to move on to other lessons in this course. 

(gif courtesy of


The Fuss About Freewriting

What is Freewriting?

Freewriting is another method used in the pre-writing process to help writers brainstorm ideas. To Freewrite, most will use a pencil and paper or type into a word document. However, others have tried recording themselves speaking their "Freewrite" aloud, so be as creative as you like.

The goal of Freewriting is to get out of your own way, to let your thoughts flow through your fingers without its normal pit stop in the logical brain where we begin to question ourselves, even judge ourselves about things like misspellings and word choice.  

To Freewrite, you'll use a timer and you'll write down your ideas for a given amount of time. This means writing down any and all of the ideas and thoughts that come into your mind, whether big or small, fully formed or not, with either complete or incomplete sentences. You can draw your ideas if you'd like, if that's the way you can convey them best. You can make lists and you can write all over the page. You can basically Freewrite any way you please, as long you don't force your thinking and let the thoughts flow from brain to pen. Don't stop, don't pick up your pen or your fingers, don't stop speaking or drawing, just don't stop. 

When your time is up, go over what you've done. Your brain is a well-oiled machine. As you Freewrite, you might begin to see patterns in your ideas or ideas that evolve on the page that you could turn into a topic.

You may or may not have a writing prompt to use as a guide as you Freewrite. Maybe you have a school assignment with a teacher's request for specific types of information. Or, perhaps you know you want to write a story about rats and wizards.

It's recommended that you consider where you Freewrite. Some people like to find quiet, comfortable spots to Freewrite, while others can Freewrite on a crowded bus. 

How Do I Freewrite?

1. Find a timer and chose your method of Freewriting (pencil and paper, typing, etc.)

2. If you have one, read your prompt or bring it to mind.

3. Start the timer and begin. 

4. Consider what you did. Are there topic ideas in there or could you form some from what you wrote?

4. Repeating the process may reveal even more ideas, especially when you see patterns or similar ideas coming through. 

(gif appears courtesy of

Examples of Freewriting With Prompt

Prompt 1: Write about an important event.

Ok I haven't thought about this in a long time, but I totally remember a time when Craig, a kid I went to school with in the 4th grade, stole this really cool bouncy ball. Wow, it seems silly that all that crazyness I felt was just about a little blue bouncy ball. It did have glitter in it though and I thought it was the coolest. We were playing on the playground with the ball. Me and my two friends. Patty through it down really hard and it bounced super high. It also flew into the grass near the basketball court. We ran over, but Craig found it first and he started laughing and making fun of us. Patty was crying because she got sand in her eye looking for the ball. I remember her crying a lot for some reason. Wow, this is a wierd memory. Craig through the ball as hard as he could out into the grass. I watched it and tried to find it before the bell rang, but I couldn't. I remember being very very sad. I can almost still feel that sadness.

Prompt 2: Ideas for rats and wizards story

another land where wizards have all the power

wizards develop highly intelligent rat species

discover rats have secret abilities

use them to perform magic spells

one day a rat escapes his home in a wizard's castle

the rat doesn't want to practice magic or do spells

the rat wants to live a normal life

maybe the wizard chases the rat down, maybe he finds him, maybe he doesn't - deeper story here

rat finds girl who takes him in as a pet.....

Prompted Freewriting Activity

Prompted Freewriting Activity:

1. Try to write for 5 minutes without stopping, without lifting your pen from the page. Use the prompt below as a jumpstart. 

2. Use the timer on the left or a timing method of your own.

3. Ignore grammar and sentence rules. It works as long as you can read and/or make sense of it.

4. Start with whatever comes into your mind first, even if it seems unrelated.

Prompt: What scares you?

(youtube video courtesy of user Luis)

Examples of Freewriting Without a Prompt

Example 1:

This is my first ever freewrite, so I'm having trouble not stopping and checking my sentences. I feel like I'm stuck. I hate being stuck. Being stuck makes me angry. Ok, what makes me happy? Goldfish make me laugh. Do goldfish feel love? Do other animals feel love? I don't know, but sometimes I think my dog loves me. I've heard that dogs have emotions, but I don't know if they're like people emotions. Are emotions the same thing as feelings?  Anger, sadness, love, happiness, excitement...which are emotions and which are feelings? 

Example 2:

freewriting makes me angry

happiness = goldfish? haha

do goldfish feel love?

do dogs feel love? 

do dogs have emotions like people?

Emotions vs feelings, what's the difference?

sadness, love, happiness, excitement - emotions or feelings?

Unprompted Freewriting Activity

Unprompted Freewriting Activity:

1. Try to write for 5 minutes without stopping, without lifting your pen from the page. 

2. Use the timer on the left or a timing method of your own.

3. Ignore grammar and sentence rules. It works as long as you can read and/or make sense of it.

4. Start with whatever comes into your mind first, even if it seems unrelated.

(youtube video courtesy of user Luis)

Yay! You've completed the lesson!

Well done!

Now that you've completed this lesson on Freewriting, you're ready to move to other lessons in this course. 

(gif courtesy of

Organizational Charts

What are Organizational Charts?

What are Organizational Charts?

Organizational Charts are tools we use to help organize our brainstormed ideas. Charts help us to link our ideas together, and can also stimulate our brains to develop new, but connected ideas. They can help organize our research questions or help us to think logically about a topic. 

Examples of Organizational Charts

Mind Mapping (step 1)

So, we start in the middle. Put your  seedling idea in the center circle. In our example we’re using daycare work. If you don’t know anything about your subject, then I’ll bet you’ve probably got questions. 

  • How much does it pay? 
  • What duties will I have to perform? 
  • Schooling? 
  • Are there industry laws I should know about?

Mind Mapping (step 2)

In this next step we narrow our focus, getting even more out of our brainstorm. Let’s focus on schooling. We’ll shift this to the middle circle. So now we can break down schooling into the things we want to know. 

  • Do I need a degree?
  • Do I need a certificate or license?
  • How many years will it take to become a daycare worker?

See our Course Resources Page for a blank Mind Map Template.

Venn Diagramm

This type of organizational chart is a brainstorming tool you can use to compare and contrast items and determine relationships between or amongst them. Start by drawing two overlapping circles. In our example above, we're comparing two schools (A and B). In the School A circle, we've listed factors about that school, like that it's close to home. In the School B circle, we've listed factors about this school, like that it's in New York City. In the area where the two circles overlap, we've listed factors these two schools have in common, like they offer good financial aid. 

Our example shows the comparison of two items, but you can compare more. If we added a School C, we then could determine the commonalities between Schools A and C, as well as those between Schools B and C. Additionally, we could determine the overlap of all three schools. 

See our Course Resources Page for a blank Venn Diagram Template.

Flow Chart

A Flow Chart is another brainstorming tool that helps you lay out steps or events in time order. In our example, we chose the topic: How to Bake Chocolate Chip Cookies. The first step in the process, Gathering Ingredients, we listed in the top box. Following the arrow, we move to the next step in the recipe. This is a handy tool to use when you need to describe how an event happened or if you need explain directions (like our recipe). Be sure to double check that you haven't missed a step. 

See our Course Resources Page for a blank Flow Chart Template.

Practice with Mind Mapping

Here's a chance to practice one using one of the most effective brainstorming strategies.

To get started:

1. Grab a pencil and paper or find a mind mapping tool in our Course Resources section. 

2. Think about a topic that interests you, any topic (golden retrievers, becoming a librarian, how to code, etc).

3. Set up your mind map using the skills you learned in this lesson. 

Woohoo! You've finished the lesson and the course!


You've completed the final lesson in the course. Good luck using brainstorming to jumpstart your writing!

 Please visit for more courses in our series.

(gif courtesy of

Course Resources

Resources Tab

Lined Paper

Download and print lined paper perfect for jotting down ideas and creating lists.


Venn Diagram template

FOLLOW THIS LINK to download and/or print a Venn Diagram template.

Flow Chart template

Download and/or print Flow Charts from THIS WEBSITE.

Create your own Flow Chart

Click HERE to learn how to create your own Flow Chart using the Microsoft Office Suite tools, like Word.

Mind Mapping tools

Head to THIS SITE for a list of website to help you develop mind maps.