Brainstorming: Write to Focus Your Ideas
Recently, I worked for a client who needed help finishing up a novel after several failed attempts. The end product finally appeared a month later, which came with a mixture of relief… and agony. The client was happy to have it finished. However, at almost 100,000 words, it was clearly bloated.
Now, I’m not tooting my own horn or selling a consulting service, but I observed a phenomenon that I’ve been using unconsciously for some time. In the process of writing, my client had worked out ideas that seemed like such an insurmountable challenge when we began our working relationship. The client repeatedly emphasized how the book was losing its focus and they felt lost during the process.
If you’re wondering what I’m getting at, I’ll show you how writing focuses your ideas—even if you don’t know what those ideas are yet.
Regardless of the type of fiction or non-fiction that they undertake, writers are plagued by something I call “perfection anxiety.” Simply put, writers feel nervous when their idea of their best work doesn’t match up to what’s on the page.
Essentially, this perfection anxiety disturbs the image of what quality of writer a person actually is versus the one that they previously-imagined themselves to be. This creates a type of cognitive dissonance: the only way to maintain this image is to not bring anything to fruition, instead leaving work half-finished, unpolished, or—like my client—unsuccessfully aborting their work over a period of years, citing a lack of focus.
Does this sound familiar to you?
The problem is that I’ve never met a perfect writer who can nail their work every time. And even if there are writers out there, chances are they spend a long time in contemplation beforehand. And if those supposed geniuses actually had foresight, couldn’t they just prolifically release bestseller after bestseller, cult-classic after cult-classic? I think not.
Is there a way to circumvent perfection anxiety to focus our ideas? There is, and the answer is keep writing. For now, that sounds like abstract advice. Let’s look at some strategies you can use.
If you’re rolling your eyes at this common strategy, then I suggest you skip to the next heading, “Beyond Brainstorming.” If not, keep reading…
When you’re stuck on a particular part of a piece or can’t even fathom beginning a topic in mind, I believe it takes a period of brainstorming to get out of this rut. How does one brainstorm? Simply think of the topic and jot down what immediately comes to mind. Don’t worry about the sequence of ideas or whether something should be excluded from the piece. Anything can be deleted later, so anything is fair game. Seeing the words on the page changes my approach entirely, and I freely plagiarize past-ME in the present to benefit future-ME.
Brainstorming is an excellent strategy to get unstuck. You don’t even have to type; some people prefer Venn diagrams and more visual approaches. All you need to do is have something written and correlations naturally start to appear.
Brainstorming in Action
Let’s use this article that you’re reading right now as an example of brainstorming:
I began with the title “Write to Focus Your Ideas,” which was based on a Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast I was listening to. That’s it. From there, I opened up a MS Word document and just started typing short sentences that read more like schizophrenic non-sequitors. I did this for ten minutes and then the well ran dry. Later on, I revisited the document and reread it for a sense of form. Immediately, I saw “brainstorming,” which became this heading. Another entry read “distillation removes impurities,” which I may not use (besides mentioning that I shouldn’t use it). And so forth.
Heck, if you really want to get meta, as you read this very sentence, I HAVEN’T EVEN FINISHED WITH THIS ARTICLE YET. Imagine that!
If brainstorming is not panning out for you, but you feel the urge to write something/anything that will later become a cohesive work, there is an alternative loophole: free-association writing.
The exercise is simple: Let it rip and don’t be afraid to be self-indulgent. Your goal is put something on a page. That’s it. You don’t have to mold your writing into any preconceived notion, whether that is tense, opinions, topics. Your goal is just to get something down, regardless of length.
Do you cringe just thinking about filling up the white space of a blank document? Make it easier for yourself by one degree and abandon computer. Instead, just record yourself. You can use dictation software if you have it, or just record on whatever device is handy.
Later, your goal is to review it, perhaps when you are in a better mindset. But here’s the kicker: you don’t have to review it if you don’t want to. The work is finished by doing free-associating. If none of those ideas seem good, who cares? However, if you have something that seems like a germ of an idea, follow my advice that I keep reiterating in this article: KEEP WRITING.
Now, I understand there are doubters out there. If you feel that free-associating is a waste of time, I offer a question in response: What do you have to lose?
Understanding the Process
Okay, so you have words down on a page and you’re beginning to see a form. But you may not feel that you’re finished until you’ve hit a milestone of creating a rough draft. In my opinion, as soon as you put down the first word on a page, you’ve created your rough draft. First drafts are called rough drafts for a reason, and that reason is that they’re horrible and unintelligible to anyone but the creator. Keep writing.
While we’d all like to create a masterpiece to skip the rough draft phase, I believe that’s just a perfection anxiety creeping back up, as well as chipping away at our precious ego. Think about it: does anyone you know feel good to see their words in print, to hear their own voice, or to look at their own pictures? No, it’s painful, but it must be done.
Additionally, the process of creating the first draft (and subsequent drafts) actually solidifies the ideas that need to be tested, as well as the veracity of the topic. I’ve started many articles after free-associating, only to reveal a large fallacy and holes in my thinking that I had assumed were fool-proof. I find that keeping a cohesive idea of what I’m beginning with tends to change after undertaking an article. That’s part of the fun.
Each subsequent editing pass that you make is a way of polishing and refocusing your ideas. As I mentioned before, I still haven’t finished this article at this point, but my rough draft is coming along nicely. Just like the title of this article, “write to focus your ideas,” I keep writing…
A Final Tip
Notice how I mentioned that I was excluding certain bits from this article in the process of revision? Well, I tried to and now I’m forced to lie to give you a final loophole:
If writing causes you anxiety, but creating ideas is more of your forté, may I suggest another approach that could come after your own brainstorming phase?
The answer is delegation. If you have some money set aside for this purpose, why not create a job on an online freelancing site, like Upwork or Freelancer, and post your assignment in specific terms. For instance, if I had stopped at my brainstorming phase, this assignment would read:
“Create a 1,000+ word assignment that details how a freelance writer can use writing techniques to focus their ideas. Included is a document that sketches possible ideas. Payment upon satisfactory completion.”
Of course, I didn’t do this, nor am I reaping the profits from outsourcing my labor, but you get this gist of it, right? This same approach goes for my design skills; I may not be an InDesign wizard, but I can create a sketch and let an artist have carte blanche within my set parameters.
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Now that we’ve reached the conclusion, I’m checking my original brainstormed outline and have only found “reiterate motif in humorous context” written as a placeholder to focus my ideas. Taking that advice to heart, I’ll do as I previously wrote: keep writing.