Brainstorming Tips For When You’re Stuck

There’s nothing worse than working on an assignment and finding yourself hopelessly, thoroughly stuck! It might be figuring out the layout of your essay that gets you, or perhaps you’re struggling to put together an argument that you can support. In cases like these, taking the time to do some less-structured brainstorming might be just what you need—but how do you start?

Never fear, we’ve got some tips for you to help make the process easy and helpful!

Use the Buddy System

We’ve all had that one assignment that just seems impossible to crack. The bright side? There’s dozens of other people who probably are in the same boat as you are. Use this to your advantage: see if you can put together a study group, or even just an informal get-together to bounce ideas off of each other.

If you aren’t close to your classmates, or if it’s a situation that makes chatting with them challenging (such as an online course), reach out to a friend who would be willing to be a sounding board. While they might not be able to help you with specifics the way a classmate would, they might have a new perspective you haven’t thought of while you’ve been mired in frustrations. The key here is that talking things out with someone else can help spark ideas and get your brain out of its rut.

Set SMART Goals

It’s easy for a brainstorming session to turn into a daydreaming one. The trick to avoiding this is to find the right balance between structure and unstructured thinking. Ideally, give yourself the freedom to approach your problem from different angles, but always have the primary goal or goals in mind.

That’s where “SMART” comes in. This is an acronym you may have encountered already in other areas, and this probably won’t be the last time you hear about it either. It stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. In the case of brainstorming ideas to get your essay off its feet, this would mean honing in on the topic or prompt and keeping in mind the parameters of the class and your own knowledge base.

That last one is important to emphasize: keep the parameters of the assignment, the class, and your own resources in sight at all times. Brainstorming can lead to incredibly cool-sounding ideas, but those huge ideas might not suit the assignment at hand or your own knowledge and resources. Take different approaches, but don’t stray too far from the topic at hand.

Brainstorm Now, Edit Later

Brainstorming fact: you’re going to have A LOT of free-flowing ideas. Some of them will be good, and some of them will not—but don’t discard anything at first glance! A brainstorming session is the time to let your ideas flow, not to edit them or throw them away.

Instead, jot down every idea that you brainstorm. Yes, even the silly-sounding ones or the intimidating, big ideas. While these might not end up being the exact topic for your assignment, they could spark another idea, and then another, eventually getting you where you need to go. By tossing out ideas as quickly as they come, you end up stifling your creativity and getting yourself stuck in a different way. Don’t judge your ideas as they come; get them all down on paper, and then evaluate their merits.

Focus on Keywords

Much like the above tip, it’s often more helpful to focus on concepts and keywords while brainstorming, rather than try to write out coherent, lengthy sentences. This helps you focus on the core ideas, not the details. Brainstorming is the rough draft of the rough draft—perfection isn’t necessary.

Depending on your learning style, it may help to use different visual ways of brainstorming. Try organizing your ideas with word webs, color coding, bullet points, or some other technique that works well for you. It’s important to see the connections between concepts and themes while brainstorming, so find a method that will help you do that.

Once you’ve got your ideas in order, start working on the more formal aspects of the assignment, like finding sources, and assembling citations.

If you’re still figuring out the differenced between MLA citations and APA citations, learning how to do an in-text citation properly, looking for a Harvard reference generator, or learning citation basics, Cite It For Me can help!