Brainstorming. People toss this term around but how many actually know what it means? To most, brainstorming means being creative and coming up with lots of ideas really fast, but there’s more to it than that. There is a method to the madness. The DIY MFA brainstorming process boils down to three steps:
Step 1: Generate as many ideas as you can in a short time.
Step 2: Evaluate the ideas.
Step 3: Repeat steps 1 & 2 until you zero in on the best idea.
I like to think of brainstorming as being sort of like the tropical storm in the picture at left. You start at the outside of the spiral, scattering ideas in all directions like the scattered mass of clouds. As you generate and evaluate your ideas, you start moving toward the center of the spiral until finally, you hit on that one great concept: the eye of the storm.
So, how do you actually go about this? Here are some tips I’ve found helpful.
Get a group together.
According to Conceptual Blockbusting (by James L. Adams), group brainstorming is often more effective than working solo. The reasons for this are many: enthusiasm and energy can be contagious, and a friendly competitive spirit takes over (everyone wants to top the last idea). While you can still get many benefits from brainstorming alone, consider getting a couple of people together and doing a group session.
Set a timer.
Whether you’re working alone or with a group, it’s good to set a time limit for generating ideas. The time limit forces you to focus and you’re more likely to come up with more ideas in a short time than if you give yourself an open-ended block to work with.
Silence the critics.
If you’re working alone, we’re talking about your inner critic. Take all those judging thoughts that come up while you’re brainstorming and boot them out the door. The inner critic will have plenty of time in the limelight when you get to step two. If you’re working with a group, make sure everyone in the group is clear on the rules: no judging or arguing about ideas. The goal is to generate ideas; evaluating them comes later.
Barbara Sher gives a great method for evaluating ideas in her book Wishcraft. I’ve often borrowed from her method and given it my own spin. Once you’ve generated a good number of ideas, go through them one by one and ask the following three questions. (You will need to go through all three questions for each idea.)
1) What are the strengths and opportunities afforded by this idea?
2) What are the downsides or obstacles presented by the idea?
3) How can you overcome those downsides and (if possible) make them into opportunities?
Another way to look at evaluating the ideas is by doing a SWOT Analysis for each idea on the list. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats and it’s a technique used a lot in strategic planning and in business, but it can apply to writing too. I like to draw a matrix for each idea I generate in Step 1 and make a list for each box.
Strengths are positive aspects internal to the book or idea. Examples of strengths in writing: a strong hook or unique premise, a really great character or strong voice, awesome writing.
Weaknesses are negative aspects internal to the book or idea. Examples: unfamiliarity with the subject matter, weak spots in the writing or the concept, a lot of research required to make the book work, costly elements in the book (like color plates or fancy design/art).
Strengths and Weaknesses are aspects of your writing you CAN control.
Opportunities are positive aspects external to the book or idea. Examples: a book that fills a specific and underrepresented niche, a unique concept that makes smart use of changing technologies in publishing, etc.
Threats are negative aspects external to the book or idea. Examples: an over-saturated category, another book just came out that’s identical to your idea.
Opportunities and threats are things you CANNOT control.
But you CAN control how you handle and approach them.
Why a SWOT analysis?
When you know where your weaknesses and threats are, you can brainstorm ideas to turn those around into strengths and opportunities. At the very least, even if you can’t get rid of the weaknesses or threats altogether, you won’t embark on a project oblivious. You’ll know what obstacles are ahead of you and can plan accordingly.
Whether you use the three-question method from Wishcraft or a SWOT analysis, the idea is to evaluate the ideas you came up with in Step 1 brainstorming and narrow them down. This is Step 2. Once you’ve narrowed your options, try generating ideas again based on the few options you did not discard (Step 3). Keep doing these steps until you’ve focused your choices down to one idea that feels strong to you.