Brainstorming: Where to Begin When Lacking Inspiration

by | Nov 1, 2016

When it comes to writing challenges, we tend to think of the blank page staring back at us, of the frustration of having something to say without knowing how to say it. But what if the struggle comes earlier in the process? What if we are stuck before we even make it to the page?

In academia, we are expected to constantly produce new research and generate fresh ideas. But since the research process is imagined to be a straightforward one, we rarely acknowledge the tremendous amount of creativity, mess, and play it requires, especially in its early stages.

It takes effort to cultivate ingenuity, especially if you are undertaking progressive, interdisciplinary work. So what can we do when we are lacking inspiration? Here are some brainstorming tips to get the wheels turning.

Go broad

We may feel a great pressure to focus and narrow the scope of our work. While this is key to shaping a project, when brainstorming ideas for new research sometimes shaking off those constraints can be crucial.

Think boldly. If you could take on any research project, regardless of budget or time, what would you do? Step outside the “scholarly” box for inspiration. What have you been drawn to or thinking about lately in your daily life? Where do you spend your time and energy? Don’t jump ahead too quickly and try to determine why these things matter to you, just capture what they are, as organically as possible.

Freewriting techniques, where you purge whatever is on your mind or respond to a prompt, without stopping, for a given stretch of time can be tremendously useful here. Try manageable increments, like 5–10 minutes of uninterrupted writing time, and don’t pressure yourself to come up with fully-fleshed out ideas or even full sentences. Write without expectations.

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Go narrow

That said, it can also be intimidating to take an abstract or big-picture approach to brainstorming. Sometimes a focused, narrow take can open up unexpected avenues of thought.

Try returning to case studies or questions you’ve tackled in other projects and push a bit further than you have before. What was left unanswered, or open-ended, in your previous work? Or take an even more grounded approach and return to your data with a blank slate. Do you see anything there you didn’t see before?

Center self-care

Academia often discourages us from valuing anything but our research. Money, time, family and our health are all very real parts of our lived experience, and it can be crucial (and radical) to consider our work with those parameters in mind.

Try self-care when brainstorming. Ask yourself what you can manage right now, and what you realistically have time for. Can you break the big, bold project into manageable components, like a conference presentation or even an abstract?

Revisit your failures

Rejection and failure are an inevitable part of the academic process. They can be traumatizing and overwhelming, but in the intensity of those emotions, we can also step out of our comfort zone and be inspired. Try revisiting a project that was rejected, or one that you consider a “failure,” and break down why you got stuck. Can you approach it from a different angle?

Alternately, return to something you otherwise abandoned, be it a case study, research question or even parts of a larger work you had to edit out. Reflect on why you chose to let it go, and on whether it has the potential to blossom in a different form.

Turn to the text

Perhaps the most useful tip when you don’t know where to start is the most obvious one; read more. Revisit your favorite scholarly works and reflect on why you find them compelling, or whether your feelings on them have changed.

At the brainstorming stage, don’t read with the intention of “finding” or hitting on something. Sit with the text, and let your ideas marinate.

Also try reading counterintuitively, be it scholarship outside your discipline or area of expertise, work on a subject you feel has nothing to do with your own research, or work in another genre altogether. Innovative research is often surprising, putting unexpected texts into conversation with one another.

Bounce ideas off someone

Sometimes the best ideas come not from reading, writing or reflection, but conversation. Challenge the notion that scholarly work needs to be done independent of a support network or without collaboration, and instead see your scholarship as an opportunity for connection.

Try bouncing ideas off of a trusted colleague or writing partner, as well as someone who is in a very different disciplinary area than you to learn what they are working on.

Share your ideas with family, friends and a network of people outside academic spaces. If you aren’t working in a collegial environment or lack a support system, try listening to what the thoughtful, progressive scholars we’ve spoken to on Imagine Otherwise have to say about scholarship, community, and transformation.

Embrace a visual turn

While writing has been the most traditionally privileged medium in academia, there has been a progressive push to diversify and expand the definition of scholarship beyond the written monograph. Shifting mediums can shift your thinking in a new direction when you’re stuck.

Try rendering visually what you’ve been working through in words. Creating a brainstorming map, sometimes called “webbing” or “mind mapping,” pushes you to visually relate the words, ideas or concepts you’ve jotted down by circling them or linking them with lines and arrows. The point is to disrupt the linearity of writing and fostering unforeseen connections by making a mess on the page.

Hopefully these brainstorming tips will help you approach the process of developing new work with excitement and anticipation. And if all else fails, just start.

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Alexandra Sastre is the associate director of campus communications at Swarthmore College.

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