Definition Essay Brainstorm Bubble

Prewriting: Clustering
Melanie Dawson & Joe Essid
(printable version here)

Clustering is a type of prewriting that allows you to explore many ideas as soon as they occur to you. Like brainstorming or free associating, clustering allows you to begin without clear ideas.

To begin to cluster, choose a word that is central to your assignment. For example, if you were writing a paper about the value of a college education, you might choose the word "expectations" and write that word in the middle of your sheet of paper. Circle "expectations," then write words all around it--words that occur to you as you think of "expectations." Write down all words that you associate with "expectations," words that at first may seem to be random. Write quickly, circling each word, grouping words around the central word. Connect your new words to previous ones with lines; when you feel you have exhausted a particular avenue of associations, go back to your central word and begin again.

For example, "expectations" might lead you to consider "the social aspects of college," which may lead you to consider "career networking." You may then find yourself writing down words that compare the types of jobs you might get through career networking. You may end up asking yourself questions such as "What sorts of jobs do I want? Not want?" Have fun with this exercise; even silly questions can open avenues to explore, such as "What if I ended up waiting tables at Buddy's?" "Would I rather be a lion-tamer or an accountant?" "What about my brilliant career as a stand-up comedian?"

Some words will take you nowhere; with other words you may discover that you have many related words to write. Random associations eventually become patterns of logic as you look over your work. After looking over the clustering exercise above, you might conclude that you want an exciting career as a performer of some type rather than a job in the service sector or behind a desk.

Now your sample paper about the value of a college education has some focus: how you expect college to lead to an interesting career that involves creativity, skill, and performance. You might then want to return to the phrase "Job Skills" and develop that part of your cluster, noting the skills that you'd need to reach your ideal career.

Clustering does not take the place of a linear, traditional outline; but, as the example shows, it allows you to explore ideas before committing them to a particular order.

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2.1: Brainstorm for the Essay

This resource was written by Jaclyn M. Wells.
Last edited by Allen Brizee on March 23, 2009 .

This resource covers methods of developing ideas for the essay you will be required to write.

Brainstorming Ideas

After you have a good grasp of what the prompt is asking, you should figure out how you will respond. You may have heard teachers refer to this stage as pre-writing. At this stage, you should brainstorm many ideas. You won’t necessarily use all of the ideas you come up with, but it’s helpful to have lots of ideas to choose from when planning your essay. After you have gathered many ideas, you’ll work on figuring out your main idea. Even though you may feel rushed to begin writing right away, it’s important to take some time to go through this step to make sure you have an interesting main idea and plenty of supporting points.

You might use one or both of the following methods to gather your ideas. Experiment with both of them to see what best helps you brainstorm your ideas.

Brainstorming Method 1: Idea Map

Drawing a map of your ideas is helpful in many ways. First, people often find that seeing a visual representation of their thoughts helps them to add more ideas and sort through them. Also, drawing a map might help you see how your thoughts connect to one another, which will help you when you begin organizing your essay.

In the center of the map, write your topic and draw a circle around it. When you come up with a new idea, write it down, draw a circle around it, and draw a line to show how it connects to the topic in the center and/or the other ideas you’ve written down. Look at the main ideas you’ve written and see if you can think of other ideas that connect to them. Remember that it is okay—actually, it is great—if you have many ideas right now. You won’t necessarily use all of them in your essay, but all it’s important to collect many ideas right now. The map below uses the sample essay topic from the previous resource to show you what an idea map might look like.

To practice with this brainstorming method, draw your own idea map using the sample essay topic.

Brainstorming Method 2: Idea List

Rather than draw a map, some people prefer to brainstorm by simply listing their ideas. This is a fairly straightforward method of brainstorming ideas. Though not as visual as an idea map, lists are a great way of finding and recording your ideas. Idea lists help you “mine” your ideas so that you have many to choose from and also help you find a main idea and supporting points, which will be useful as you plan your essay.

At the top of your list, write your topic. Writing out your topic helps you focus on it. Then, list the ideas you think of in the order that they come to you. You can use many lists to find supporting points for each of your ideas. The lists below use the sample essay topic above to show you what idea lists might look like.

Example Idea List

What is an important goal I have for the next few years?

  • finishing school
  • getting a better job
  • keeping in touch with my friends and family
  • learning a new language

How can I achieve my goal?

  • to finish school, I can figure out what my goals are for school, find a school that fits my goals, and apply to schools and for financial aid
  • to get a better job, I can finish school, learn a new language, search for jobs, prepare my applications, and make a list of people who will give me a good reference
  • to keep in touch with my friends and family, I can make a list of everyone’s contact information, like addresses, phone numbers, and email
  • to learn a new language, I can pick what language I want to learn, get a dictionary, and find a class

To practice with this brainstorming method, make your own idea list using the sample essay topic.

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