2.1: Brainstorm for the Essay
This resource was written by Jaclyn M. Wells.
Last edited by Allen Brizee on March 23, 2009 .
This resource covers methods of developing ideas for the essay you will be required to write.
After you have a good grasp of what the prompt is asking, you should figure out how you will respond. You may have heard teachers refer to this stage as pre-writing. At this stage, you should brainstorm many ideas. You won’t necessarily use all of the ideas you come up with, but it’s helpful to have lots of ideas to choose from when planning your essay. After you have gathered many ideas, you’ll work on figuring out your main idea. Even though you may feel rushed to begin writing right away, it’s important to take some time to go through this step to make sure you have an interesting main idea and plenty of supporting points.
You might use one or both of the following methods to gather your ideas. Experiment with both of them to see what best helps you brainstorm your ideas.
Brainstorming Method 1: Idea Map
Drawing a map of your ideas is helpful in many ways. First, people often find that seeing a visual representation of their thoughts helps them to add more ideas and sort through them. Also, drawing a map might help you see how your thoughts connect to one another, which will help you when you begin organizing your essay.
In the center of the map, write your topic and draw a circle around it. When you come up with a new idea, write it down, draw a circle around it, and draw a line to show how it connects to the topic in the center and/or the other ideas you’ve written down. Look at the main ideas you’ve written and see if you can think of other ideas that connect to them. Remember that it is okay—actually, it is great—if you have many ideas right now. You won’t necessarily use all of them in your essay, but all it’s important to collect many ideas right now. The map below uses the sample essay topic from the previous resource to show you what an idea map might look like.
To practice with this brainstorming method, draw your own idea map using the sample essay topic.
Brainstorming Method 2: Idea List
Rather than draw a map, some people prefer to brainstorm by simply listing their ideas. This is a fairly straightforward method of brainstorming ideas. Though not as visual as an idea map, lists are a great way of finding and recording your ideas. Idea lists help you “mine” your ideas so that you have many to choose from and also help you find a main idea and supporting points, which will be useful as you plan your essay.
At the top of your list, write your topic. Writing out your topic helps you focus on it. Then, list the ideas you think of in the order that they come to you. You can use many lists to find supporting points for each of your ideas. The lists below use the sample essay topic above to show you what idea lists might look like.
Example Idea List
What is an important goal I have for the next few years?
- finishing school
- getting a better job
- keeping in touch with my friends and family
- learning a new language
How can I achieve my goal?
- to finish school, I can figure out what my goals are for school, find a school that fits my goals, and apply to schools and for financial aid
- to get a better job, I can finish school, learn a new language, search for jobs, prepare my applications, and make a list of people who will give me a good reference
- to keep in touch with my friends and family, I can make a list of everyone’s contact information, like addresses, phone numbers, and email
- to learn a new language, I can pick what language I want to learn, get a dictionary, and find a class
To practice with this brainstorming method, make your own idea list using the sample essay topic.
You’ve reached the “Analyze an Issue” task and are presented with a topic of contention. It will look something like this:
Educational institutions have a responsibility to dissuade students from pursuing fields of study in which they are unlikely to succeed.
Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim. In developing and supporting your position, be sure to address the most compelling reasons and/or examples that could be used to challenge your position.
Even the most seasoned writers will tell you one of the biggest challenges to writing is simply getting started. The blank page is intimidating enough of a challenge when you’re not under any time constraints, serving as a clear reminder that you haven’t even begun. When you factor in the amount of time you’ll be given on the GRE to write a strong essay – not to mention the overall pressure you’ll experience throughout the entire exam – the blank page will seem like an even more daunting obstacle.
The time constraints of the GRE Analytical Writing section often make test-takers think they need to dive right into a draft without a plan. However, while a handful of writers can organize their thoughts without writing anything down, most test-takers do benefit from a short brainstorming session in which they can collect themselves and organize their ideas.
Your brainstorming session can be as organized as you’d like, but no matter how you brainstorm best, take a few minutes to jot down a few of your initial responses to the prompt. Whether you start free-writing or simply list out your ideas, focus on accomplishing the following in your brainstorming session:
- Decide which side of the argument you will take in your essay.
- Generate ideas for the direction of your essay, meaning come up with reasons that support each side of the issue.
- Decide which ideas you’d like to use and which ideas you can discard.
- Identify supporting examples you can use to reinforce your argument.
If you’re not used to brainstorming before beginning an essay, it may feel awkward and frenetic at first. After all, you are taking precious minutes out of your allotted time to develop an initial plan of attack, so naturally you’ll feel like you need to finish your brainstorming session as quickly as possible. While this is a good thought, brainstorming sessions are also an event that you can (and should) train for. We’ll discuss a few ways that you can prepare yourself for quick and productive brainstorming sessions before you walk into a GRE testing room.
How to practice brainstorming
We’ve discussed what you should look to accomplish in a short brainstorming session, but here’s how you can practice brainstorming, even though you’ll be dealing with an entirely new prompt (or prompts) on test day.
1. On your next “Analyze an Issue” task practice for the Analytical Writing section, take five minutes to brainstorm as we outlined earlier. Then, step away for 30-45 minutes. When you sit back down to write your essay, evaluate the notes from your brainstorming session. If you still feel comfortable writing an essay – even after a considerable amount of time away from it – this is a good indication of how productive you were during your brainstorming time. Remember, this won’t happen overnight, so don’t be discouraged if you find that your notes are difficult to follow after your first few attempts.
2. Read, read, read. Like any persuasive essay you’ll write, you’ll need to back up any argument with supporting examples and details. However, you won’t have the luxury of Google searches during the GRE. Make it a priority to supplement your GRE materials with informative outside reading, which will equip you with real-world examples to support an essay on a variety of topics.
The art of brainstorming doesn’t always come naturally, even to the most accomplished writers. But rest assured, the benefits of taking just a few minutes to get your thoughts out of your head and onto a piece of paper is a great way to jumpstart your writing.
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