Academic writing:  Creating Ideas

So, you’ve decided on your topic but now you're stuck. How do you go about generating material to include in your essay? How do you decide what to say?

Generating ideas can be fun or frustrating, depending on how much time you have, how interested you are in the topic, and how much information you can find about it. Sometimes you'll have so many ideas you'll have to leave some out. But other times you might have trouble coming up with enough meaningful material to meet minimum page requirements.

Fortunately, there are dozens of ways to generate ideas for writing. I'll share a few that I've seen work well for adults writing essays for college. If you try them, you'll almost definitely generate enough relevant and substantial material to do a respectable job, whatever your writing task.

First things first: You might already know that it's not enough to come up with a topic for your essay. (Imagine you wanted to write a paper on alcholism and did a web search for the term; you'd get tens of millions of hits. Where would you begin?) You also need to work out your thesis statement--the idea that you want to convey about your topic--in order to research effectively and efficiently and to write a focused paper. Before you are able to craft a thesis statement, though, you might need to begin by posing a research question like, What treatments for alcoholism exist in addition to programs like AA?

Let's look at how you can move from having a topic to developing a research question and then a thesis statement with strong main ideas to support it.

TIP: Click here to read more on WHALE about creating an effective multi-part thesis statement.


It's very common to have a topic that interests you--like breast cancer or high school drop-out rates--but not a clear sense of what you want to learn and then convey about it. How can you go about crafting a research question to pursue then "answer" with your thesis statement? You might begin by doing directed freewriting on the "W" words related to your topic.

You could pose questions to yourself like these:

  • What do I already know about my topic?
  • What else do I want to learn about it?
  • What might my friends ask me about it?
  • What interests me most about my topic?
  • Why do I think people should care about it?

Set a timer for 5 minutes or so for each question, and write until it goes off (don't stop if you're on a roll!). If you get stuck, rewrite the last word you thought of over and over until you come up with more material.

When you're ready, read what you wrote and mark the passages that interest you the most. Then re-read and cross out anything meaningless or boring to you. You will probably see your research question, and perhaps even your thesis statement, emerging.

Here's how the process might work. You notice that you're irritated that people check their phones constantly--during class, dinner, movies, games, and even conversations--so you decide to write a paper about it. After doing directed freewriting, you discover that you want to learn more about the effects of phone overuse/abuse on romantic relationships. From there, you formulate a tentative research question: Can smartphone overuse hurt romantic relationships? Now you have a place to begin.


  • Questioning

It probably won't take long to determine that the answer to your research question is "yes." You can now write a general thesis like this: Research demonstrates that smartphone overuse can hurt romantic relationships. However, as you learned from reading about thesis statements elsewhere on WHALE, you'll want to go on to develop a multi-part thesis that you can easily turn into an outline for your paper. You can use the "W" words to form more directed freewriting questions to explore components of your topic and broad thesis. For instance:

  • How many people say that their partner's phone use hurts their relationship?
  • How many people say that their own phone use hurts their relationship?
  • In what ways can phone overuse affect a relationship?
  • How often do people check their phones? How many hours a day do people spend on them?
  • Why do people check their phones so often?
  • How can people lessen the negative impact of their phones on their relationships?

As you research, you'll discover answers to your targeted questions. You can transform these "answers" into a multi-part thesis statement, like this: Studies demonstrate that smartphone overuse can hurt romantic relationship due to the amount of time some people spend on their phones, their level of distraction when their phones are nearby, and their ability to easily develop and nurture emotionally intimate relationships with other people other than their partner through text, email, and social media.

TIP: You can also use the “w” words to create a research strategy. You might ask yourself: What search terms can I use to research in Google, Google Scholar, and my library's databases? Whom can I interview or observe to learn more? Who are the major researchers on my topic? Where can I obtain additional information about this topic? When was the most relevant research on my topic published? (When you're writing on the impact of cell phone use on relationships, the more current your information, the better; when you're writing on the 1912 Bread and Roses labor strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, currency is less important.)


* Outlining or Clustering

As you read in the WHALE handout on thesis statements, once your formulate you multi-part statement, you can develop an outline--or a cluster, web, or map--for your essay.

TIP: Click here for more information on creating an outline. Click here to learn about clusters, webs, or maps. Click here for an essay map template; click here, here, and here to try applications for making clusters, webs, or maps.

You might have noticed that when you crafted your multi-part thesis statement and related outline or cluster, you moved from generating to selecting ideas. Writing, like most creative endeavors, is a process of expansion and contraction--you come up with ideas (expand) then choose which ones to pursue (contract). If you don't contract, you'll probably end up with such a broad thesis that you'll risk either getting lost and overwhelmed when you research or trying to cover so much that you can barely scratch the surface when you write your paper. Carefully selecting the ideas you'll include in your paper will help you research effectively and allow you to delve in deeply.

  • Using Rhetorical Strategies

Once you have decided on your topic and multi-part thesis, which will provide the basis of your main ideas, you can go back to "expanding." Use the rhetorical strategies in the box above to generate ideas material for your body paragraphs. (Read Main Ideas on WHALE for more information about them.) Take out your timer again and write for at least 5 minutes on each strategy. Here are some ideas to get you started. I've included a few examples as well:

  • Narrative:
    -- Can I tell a brief story--real or imagined--about a person or situation connected to my topic? (For example: I was telling my boyfriend about an upsetting fight at work when his phone "dinged"; I was so angry when he pulled it out of his pocket to read the text that I walked away . . . )
    -- Do I know of a "case study" that might be relevant? (My cousin's husband "Friended" his high school sweetheart on FaceBook; a few months later, my cousin found out that they had started dating. . . )
  • Comparison & Contrast:
    -- Can I think of situations, conditions, or issues similar to the ones I explore in my paper? (My mother described herself as a "sports widow" because my Dad would watch football every Sunday afternoon; he wouldn't even go to extended family events when his team was playing.)
    -- Can I think of differences . . . ? (At least she lost my father just one afternoon a week, for a few months a year. My boyfriend is connected to his phone every day.)
  • Cause and Effect:
    -- How or why did this situation come about? (Did it start with instant messaging? With smartphones? With unlimited data plans?)
    -- What impact has it had?
  • Definition:
    -- Are there any terms that I can or should explain further for readers? (What is phubbing?)
    -- Are there any disagreements in the research about key terms, ideas, or theories related to my topic? (Can people become addicted to cell phones?)
  • Description:
    -- Are there processes, situations, conditions, or symptoms associated with my topic that I could describe?
    -- Are there sensory details (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) that I can include? (Does everyone feel a little rush of excitement when their own phone "dings," and annoyance when their partner's does? Do other people experience FOMO?)
  • Chronology:
    -- What has happened over time regarding my topic?
    -- What history or context do people need to understand my topic?
  • Statistics, Facts, and Examples
    -- What statistics can I look for about my topic? (What % of people believe that smartphones are hurting their romantic relationship? How many people cite phones as a factor in splitting up? How many hours a day do people spend on their phones? How many times do they check them? How many texts do they send? . . . ) Remember that you can include photos, charts, and other visuals.

Free-writing on rhetorical strategies will likely generate a lot of material. Some of it will be good but not relevant to your paper; althought it might be painful, cut what doesn't fit. (You’ll probably be able to use it in another essay; after all, you’ll be writing a lot of them before you graduate.) Some of it might be relevant but not yet very good; you'll probably need to do more resesarch and rewrite things you know have potential but just don't yet "work." Once you decide what to "keep," copy and paste it into your outline or cluster. In no time you'll have a first draft.

FINAL NOTE: Getting started is often the hardest part of the process. Would it be more pleasant to freewrite in a coffee shop than at your desk? Would rewarding yourself with an episode of your favorite show give you the motivation to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)? Go ahead! Are you reluctant to start because you're afraid you'll write something terrible? No problem! As long as you have something written, you can revise.