How do you develop essay ideas?

How do you find an interesting topic you can use for academic writing? Start with prewriting activities that help you unleash your thoughts and put them onto paper.  What is prewriting? 

It is the first stage of the writing process where you come up with ideas, make notes (and sometimes do research) and plan what you will write. Prewriting is an essential piece of academic writing, but many people overlook it.

They think prewriting is only for creative writing–it’s not.  Whatever writing genre you are in, prewriting helps you find and plan your ideas.  Prewriting for academic writing is like other types of prewriting; the difference is in how you evaluate writing ideas.

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

Prewriting helps you select a topic you’re interested in and figure out what things you should include in your academic essay or paper.  The trick is in finding the ideal prewriting method that suits your personality as a writer and gets you excited to start a new writing project.

Today, we’re looking at 6 types of prewriting so that you can find the right activities for your writing process.


6 Prewriting Activities for Academic Writing


These are 6 prewriting activities I use to help my students decide what to write about and how they should plan their writing.

Three 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 subject 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 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.

Brainstorming is excellent 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.


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.   

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.

Here 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 an excellent 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 a set number of minutes to find a topic.  You can use freewriting for other purposes like developing your writing voice and style, but it is a great prewriting activity too.  When you use it for prewriting, start with an open-ended question like, “What can I write about? or  “What things interest me?”

Looping is the second part of freewriting.  You take your writing topic and then write about it non-stop for another set number of 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 as brainstorming—find a topic and then select ideas related to it.


The process for freewriting:

  1. Find a place to focus and concentrate on writing.
  2. Set a timer for at least 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 exciting 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:

The process of looping is identical to that of freewriting.  Set a timer and write for a certain length of time without stopping. Then focus your writing on the topic you selected from the freewrite.  When you finish your writing,  you will circle, highlight, or underline interesting ideas related to your writing topic.   Then ask, “What ideas would be good to include in my essay or paper?”

Freewriting and looping are great 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.

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:

  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 of research writing.  These are also helpful 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 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.

It’s only helpful when you have a good idea of what you want to include in your paper.   


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 you like to have a structured plan for what to write.  They 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.


Prewriting Activity 6:  Journaling!

Do you want to have a source of endless writing ideas?   Journaling is an excellent 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 ask yourself:

  • What’s the most intriguing thing I read about? Why is it interesting? 
  • What ideas from class did I agree with and why?
  • What did I disagree with and 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 you want to write an essay or paper on those topics.


Try one or more of techniques with your writing and see which ones work the best for you.

 Also, if you want more support and help with academic writing, join the Academic Writing Success Community!  I’ll send you my free How to Organize an Amazing Academic Essay Cheat Sheet!