How do you develop essay ideas?

How do you find an interesting topic? And how you can find a subject you can use for academic writing? You can use many of the same prewriting activities other writers use for academic writing. The difference is in how you evaluate a topic.

When you select a topic you search for what interests you, as well as, whether or not there is research on it.

Prewriting is the stage or stages in the writing process before you write a first draft.  Prewriting activities help you select a topic you’re interested in, and figure out what things you should include in your academic essay or paper.  A good prewriting activity suits your personality as a writer and gets you excited to start a new writing project.

5 Prewriting Activities for Academic Writing

These are 5 prewriting activities I use to help my students decide what to write about and how they should plan their writing.

Two of these prewriting techniques will help find your topic and select some of your content. Three prewriting activities are for when you already know your topic and want to organize it.   Use one or a combination of these prewriting techniques to get you started on your essay.

Prewriting Activity 1: Brainstorming (Listing) Ideas

Brainstorming is where you write or type down every idea you have for a possible essay topic or any other kind of writing project.  Then you can use one of those ideas as a topic, and create a second list of ideas based on your essay topic.

The process for brainstorming is:

Part 1 –Select a writing topic:

  1. Find a place where you can focus without distraction.
  2. Ask yourself, “what can I write about?”
  3. Think for a moment.
  4. List every idea that comes to your mind.
  5. Do this for a short period of time (5-10 minutes).
  6. Look over your list and pick a topic.

Part 2—Choose content to include in your topic

  1. Focus on the question, “What ideas relate to this topic?”
  2. Think for a moment.
  3. Write down every thought that comes to your mind for 5-10 minutes.
  4. Circle ideas that intrigue you.
  5. Decide which ideas would best relate to the essay topic, and which ideas are interesting.

Who is the brainstorming/ listing prewriting activity good for?

This is good for anyone who likes to do short creative activities that don’t require writing in complete sentences.  There is an organized process to it, but this activity doesn’t restrain the mind. You won’t have a well-structured essay outline at the end of this activity, but you could try this activity first and then create an outline.

Try this brainstorming challenge for yourself.

Watch this video brainstorming “Writing Challenge: How to Brainstorm Writing Ideas.”

Then download the Brainstorm Session Handout and discover your own writing ideas. /

Prewriting Activity 2: Clustering/Mind Maps

This is an activity where you create a web or mind map based on your essay topic.   Clustering and mind mapping are the same thing, but the word “clustering” was used first.   A lot of writers and teachers still use this name. I use the words mind map because I use mind maps for many different learning activities.   The process is the same no matter what you call this prewriting technique.

The process for creating a mind map is:

  1. Select your main topic.
  2. Write your main idea in a circle in the middle of your map.
  3. Think of an idea that relates to the main idea.
  4. Draw a line and write that word/s in a circle. These ideas are major categories you can include in your essay or paper.
  5. Do this for every idea that relates to your main topic.
  6. Look at the major categories you wrote in these circles.
  7. For each category think of related ideas.
  8. Draw a branch with a circle for each related idea.
  9. Analyze the ideas in your mind map, and decide which ones you want to include in your writing project.

This is a mind map I created before I wrote this blog post on prewriting activities.  What ideas in my mind map are in this post? Prewriting Activities Mind Map

This prewriting activity is good for people who know their writing topic and want to develop ideas about what to include in their essay or paper. It is also a great activity for visual learners and people who don’t want to write a lot of words during the prewriting process.

Prewriting Activity 3: Freewriting and Looping

Freewriting is an activity where you write non-stop for 5-10 minutes, and at the end of the activity, you look for a writing topic.

Looping is the second part of freewriting.  You take your writing topic and then write about it non-stop for 5-10 minutes.   Looping will help you find other ideas you want to add to your writing.

Rachel Connor explains freewriting and looping in her post, “The Prewriting Toolkit: Freewriting and Looping” at

The goal of this activity is the same goal as brainstorming—find a topic and then select ideas related to your topic.

The process for freewriting is:

  1. Find a place to focus and concentrate on writing.
  2. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes.
  3. Start writing and don’t stop to go back and edit your words.
  4. Keep writing even if you can’t think of what to say. When you’re stuck, write the words, “I don’t know what to say”, and then continue.
  5. Stop writing when you hear the timer’s alarm.
  6. Read what you wrote and circle, highlight or underline any interesting ideas.
  7. Ask, “Can I write an essay or paper about any of these ideas?”
  8. Select your idea, and decide if you want to try looping for more ideas related to your topic.

The process for looping is the same.   But when you finish your writing,  you will circle, highlight or underline interesting ideas related to you writing topic.   Then ask, “What ideas would be good to include in my essay or paper?”

Freewriting and looping are good for people who don’t like a lot of structure and want a lot of flexibility when they are prewriting.  It is not the best choice for people who don’t want to write a lot of sentences in a short time period.

Freewriting is my favorite prewriting activity when I’m writing in my native language(English).  But it is harder for me to do freewriting in other languages.  If I’m prewriting in Spanish I like to brainstorm and list my ideas.

Prewriting Activity 4: Journalist’s Questions

This prewriting technique is where you take your main topic and try to answer the 6 questions journalists ask about everything they write:  Who, What, When, Where, Why and How?

The process for the Journalist’s Questions prewriting activity is:

  1. Write down your main topic.
  2. Ask each question: Who? What? When? Where? How? and Why?  Note: you probably won’t be able to answer every question for your topic.
  3. Answer questions that fit your main topic.
  4. Write detailed answers to these questions.
  5. Check and see if any of your answers make you think of other questions.
  6. Write down any other questions that come to your mind. These are called follow-up questions.
  7. Try to write answers to your follow-up questions.

The Journalist’s Questions prewriting activity is useful for people who are doing some kind research writing.  These are also useful questions for people writing a story or a personal narrative.  It is a structured prewriting exercise that is easy to follow, and it helps you develop a lot of content for your writing project.

This prewriting technique involves a lot of writing, but the writing is focused on answering specific questions.

Prewriting Activity 5: Creating an Outline

This prewriting exercise is for organizing your main idea, thesis statement and all the content you’ll include in your essay or paper.  It’s not a prewriting activity for choosing a topic and deciding on ideas.

So, it’s only helpful when you have a good idea of what you want to include in your paper.   I don’t make an outline until I’ve gathered research on my topic.

Here’s the process for creating an outline:

  1. Write a title at the head of the outline.
  2. Add the introduction which includes: the hook—a sentence that engages your audience so they want to keep reading your essay (fact, interesting story, statistic, quotation etc.) &  the main idea and thesis statement.
  3. Outline the body of your essay with the main ideas connected to the thesis statement.  Add supporting details, and evidence.
  4. Outline the conclusion which restates your thesis statement and explains the significance of that thesis.

Here’s what you include in an outline for a 5- Paragraph Essay.

5 Paragraph Essay Outline

You can add more pieces to the outline if you’re writing a longer paper. If you’re writing a long research paper you can divide your paper into headings.   You’ll see an example of how to do this at

Outlines are perfect for you if like to have a structured plan for what to write.  Outlines make it easy for you to transfer your ideas into paragraphs.   But, if you are a person who likes to be flexible in their writing then you may not find this activity useful.   There are other ways to organize your notes and ideas before writing.

Bonus Tip:  Journaling!

Do you want to have a source of endless writing ideas?   Journaling is a great habit for you.

You can keep a journal for your academic studies or if you like journaling you can keep a journal for each of your courses.   All you do is write down what you think or feel about what you’ve read, studied or learned for that day.

Here are some questions to write about:

  • What’s the most interesting thing I read about?
  • What ideas from class did I agree with? Why?
  • What did I disagree with? Why?
  • What did I learn today?
  • What confused me?

You can explore many other questions in a daily academic journal.  I limit my writing to 1 page, and many times I write a lot less. I also have a personal journal, and I find many writing ideas from this journal too.

The advantage of journaling is that when you don’t know what to write about, you can look back at other things that interested you. Then you can decide if want to write an essay or paper on those topics.

Try one or more of these 5 prewriting activities with your writing.   Then comment below and let me know which prewriting activities you enjoy.

Featured photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash