Published: January 8, 2019
By Peter Mosley, Ph.D.
Ever had that experience of staring at a blank sheet of paper, nervous and bewildered as you frantically, unsuccessfully search for the first word in your intro?
You don’t have to think about writing the introduction as the first item on the writing project agenda. If you are stuck, embrace the reality that you are simply at the first stage of the writing process.
Writing professors have dubbed this the invention stage. It’s the stage when you to take inventory of what you know or need to know about your general topic, and as you take inventory you begin to invent the content of your writing project. This stage often involves processes like freewriting, mind-mapping, preliminary researching, and listing. You don’t have to do these things in order, and you don’t have to do all of them. Different methods will work for different people. Figure out what works best for you and use it to enhance the way you start your writing process.
Freewriting is probably the most popular way to start the invention process. Here’s how to do it: sit down, try to focus on the general topic you’re discussing, and freely write anything that enters your mind, no matter how disorganized or ridiculous it is, for about five minutes. Miracles can happen when you the disorganized thoughts from your head and put them on paper. Then, survey what you’ve written. Look for connections, common themes, hints on how you’ll organize your paper, questions or concerns that may need research, and possibly even a topic that is suitable for your paper. Sometimes having someone else read what you wrote can also help you develop your topic.
Mind-Mapping or Clustering will generally work well if you think best visually. Start with your broad topic and write it in the center of a piece of paper. Then draw lines that branch out from that center, and label each of these branches with a subtopic. Draw lines out that branch out from these subtopics, and label each of those branches with a sub-subtopic. And so on.
You can perform mind-mapping by itself or in conjunction with other methods. For example, to organize your freewriting sample you can make a map in which the main topic of your freewrite branches out into the freewrite’s sub-topics. As you write your paper or conduct research, you can continue to add to your mind-map to create a visual plan for organizing your paper.
Preliminary Research is often essential when you have writer’s block because you don’t know enough about the topic to start writing. When you conduct preliminary research, try to focus on reading in a direction that will give you a suitable topic for your writing project. Don’t just conduct research; conduct research with a general focus in mind that will enable you to further define your project.
Also, remember that writing the information you glean from the sources you read as you read them can help you organize your thoughts. In large writing projects that have dozens or even hundreds of sources, it’s generally a good idea to make a record of each source in an annotated bibiliography, keeping track of key information and thoughts you have on the key information as you do so.
Outlines can help you plan a direction for your paper. Your outline doesn’t have to be detailed for most writing projects, and it may shift as you continue writing the paper. You also don’t have to write your outline from the intro to the conclusion – you can start writing the outline for your body, and then examine that outline to help you determine a strong introduction and conclusion.
Outlines can easily be used to enhance other invention methods. You can organize your freewrite results into an outline, use your outline to organize the topics in your mind map into a paper, or use your outline to organize and plan your research.
Don’t overwhelm yourself with disorganized information.
Try to strike a balance between open brainstorming and strategic organization of your invention process so that you generate ideas that fit your writing project.
Your invention process doesn’t have to stop when you start writing the paper. These techniques can help you at any point in the writing process.
Thank you for reading!
What invention techniques work best for you or your students? Let us know in the comments below.
Based on the above discussion, consider the following questions:
- Your friend Jason is having trouble getting started on a writing project. He has done enough preliminary research for his project, but all the information has left him with a lot of disorganized thoughts, and he’s unsure of what to write first. How can one or more invention exercises jump-start his writing process?
- Your classmate Sarah is stuck on her writing assignment. She keeps freewriting, but every time she freewrites she ends up uncovering more information she doesn’t know. What should she do?
- Joanne is writing a cover letter for a job opportunity. She has a lot of relevant experience and is stuck on how to organize it all into a successful piece of writing. What kind of advice can you offer her?
- Why do you think you often get stuck? Which combination of the above methods do you think will work best for you?