“Invention” or “discovery” is the means whereby a writer or orator either finds (discovers) or creates (invents) content. In academic writing or speaking, invention often is thought to begin with research, but students also use invention techniques to help them prepare for research. Invention fosters critical thinking skills, so that as students do their research, they are more open to various problems and perspectives and more able to connect what they learn to their personal experiences and knowledge; invention also helps writers or speakers narrow a topic, clarify a thesis, develop ideas, or find arguments. In addition, once some preliminary reading or drafting is done, invention techniques can help he writer or speaker to refocus. Finally, these techniques are helpful for students who are blocked.
Not all invention techniques are suited to all communication tasks. Encourage students to experiment with these strategies to find out which work for them.
ClusteringFor those who need a visual picture of their ideas, clustering (also called visualizing) is a helpful method of invention. Clustering can be done as a part of brainstorming groups (see below) or by students working alone.
What follows is a procedure for clustering:
- Write a word related to the topic in the middle of a page and circle it.
- Think of other words that come to mind when you think of the word. Let your mind be playful. Don’t judge or evaluate; just let the words flow.
- As you write other words, circle them.
- If you draw a blank thinking of more words, draw lines between the words you have written that are similar and draw arrows when one word leads to another.
- Don’t think or analyze too long about any word or connection.
- Continue this activity from two to five minutes.
- Look through your cluster to get an idea of where to begin.
- If you bog down in writing, resume the clustering process for another two to five minutes
BrainstormingBrainstorming, probably the most widely used invention technique, was codified in a set of techniques by Alex Osborne in the late 1950′s (Applied Imagination. NY: Scribner, 1957). According to Osborne, the ground rules for brainstorming are as follows:
- Don’t criticize or evaluate any ideas during the session. Simply write down every idea that emerges. Save the criticism and evaluation until later.
- Use your imagination for “free wheeling.” The wilder the idea the better, because it might lead to some valuable insights later.
- Strive for quantity. The more ideas, the better chance for a winner to emerge.
- Combine and improve ideas as you proceed. (Osborne 8)
- Provide a topic or let the students select one.
- Have students select a recorder who will keep notes on ideas that emerge. The recorder may also want to use a clustering format (see above) so as to make relationships between ideas more apparent.
- Ask students to call out ideas and to use courtesy. They should not interrupt or ridicule.
- Set aside a certain amount of time (10 to 15 minutes or longer) during each class for the students to brainstorm about the topic.
- If students are writing on the same topic, you can allow them to work together in pairs or groups.
- Never grade or evaluate the students’ work in any way.
- Do this each class meeting for a period of time leading up to the drafting stage of a writing assignment.
- Follow up the group session with a 10-minute writing period. Ask each student to select at least one idea the group came up with and elaborate on it. Remind them the writing won’t be graded or collected.
- If you don’t have time in class, you can assign brainstorming for outside work and grade the quantity (but never the quality) of their work. Have students brainstorm a list of ideas about the topic for at least 10 minutes and then write for one hour elaborating on the ideas on the list without stopping.
This should take 20-30 minutes of class time. You can cut the time by omitting the follow-up. Don’t cut the brainstorming to less than 10 minutes, however, because students need at least that much time to warm up and push themselves to think more deeply and reflectively.
For a handout on Brainstorming geared to students, see the University Writing Center online handouts.
Think/Pair/ShareThis is a quick and easy way to encourage both deeper thinking and fluency in public speaking in a low-stakes environment. Have students spend about 3-5 minutes thinking about the topic under consideration in class. For example, they might think about how diseases spread through needle pricks and what can be done to prevent it. Preferably, they should jot down some of their ideas. Let them know that recording their thoughts will make them more effective and less nervous for the sharing that is to come.
Next, ask each student to pair up with a classmate and share their ideas. Again, it is helpful if they jot something down, and for the same reasons.
At the end of the activity, depending on the time allotted and the size of the class, ask at least two of the pairs to share with the whole class. Think/Pair/Share can be a good springboard for class discussion, but even if the activity stops after two shares, the students will have taken the time to think more deeply about the topic.
Focused FreewritingOne of the best ways to get inexperienced writers used to the idea of writing is freewriting, which is writing without judgment or limits (except for time). The theory behind freewriting is that the writer’s conscious mind may be inhibiting ideas. While this theory is controversial, research does support the idea that writers attending too closely to rhetorical, grammatical, and mechanical issues (what is called “monitoring”) may be less fluent and may tend toward writer’s block (For example, see Mike Rose, Writer’s Block: The Cognitive Dimension,1985 and Peter Elbow, Embracing Contraries,1986).
Although some writing instructors advocate freewriting on any topic as a way to increase fluency and comfort with writing, in a content course it is likely that a more appropriate method would be focused freewriting, whereby the writer’s attention is drawn to a particular topic or problem.
In summary, the benefits of freewriting are many:
- Inexperienced writers can become familiar with the physical act of writing.
- Freewriting helps writers to match their writing process with their thinking process.
- Writers can produce without the editorial judgments that make writing more difficult.
- Freewriting demystifies the process of writing.
- Students see that writing is not so difficult and that it does not require some innate gift.
- Freewriting demonstrates to the students that good writing is not normally produced on the first try.
- Begin by writing your topic at the top of the page.
- Write for a preset amount of time (usually 10 minutes) without stopping for anything. Do not lift your pen from the paper.
- If you can’t think of anything to write, write “I can’t think of anything to write” or rewrite the last word that you wrote over and over until you think of something.
- Do not worry about correct spelling, punctuation, wording, or mechanics. This is for your eyes only.
- Do not judge your own ideas. Write whatever comes into your mind.
- The only requirement is that you do not stop writing until the time is up.
- At the end of 10 minutes, read over what you have written. Look for a “center of gravity”–that is, a phrase or sentence that grabs your attention, makes you want to elaborate, challenges you, or otherwise engages you.
- Rewrite that sentence at the top of a clean sheet of paper.
- Begin another 10 minute freewrite.
- Repeat again for a total of three “loops” or freewriting cycles.
For a handout on Freewriting geared to students, see the University Writing Center online handouts.
HeuristicsHeuristics are systems of questioning. The Greek word “heurisis” means “finding” and is related to Archimedes’ cry of “Eureka!” (“I have found it!”). Most methods of prewriting fit into this category. You can formulate your own heuristics to fit your discipline, but below are listed two of the most useful general sets.
Reporters’ QuestionsThe simplest heuristic is the one reporters use: who? what? when? where? why? and how?
Classical RhetoricAncient Greek and Roman rhetoricians saw Invention as a primary step in preparing a speech, and they used a system of Topics (“places”), where rhetoricians could “find” arguments. They discussed both Special Topics (that is, appropriate to a given discipline) and Common Topics (those general enough to be of use for any rhetorician). Their systems were codified by the great Roman educator, Quintilian.
Below is a modern version of Quintilian’s Common Topics:
Definition. “What is it/what was it?” The answer to the question can be in a variety of contexts:
- The World Trade Center towers were the two tallest buildings in New York City. (immediate context)
- The attack on September 11, 2001, was a damaging blow to the financial industry in the United States. (larger context)
- For many Americans, the days after the attack on the World Trade Center were like the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
- Flying commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center towers was unlike ordinary military use of aircraft.
- The attack on the World Trade Center brought America’s concern about homeland security to the forefront.
- If the governmental agencies in charge of security in the United States do not coordinate their information and efforts, another attack such as the one on the World Trade Center will occur.
- Even after the attack on the World Trade Center towers, New York City Mayor Rudy Guilliani said that the city was still strong and united.
- Over 100,000 square feet of office space was destroyed and more than 2,000 people died in the attack on the World Trade Center.
- People on the ground near the World Trade Center said they saw many people jumping from the top floors of the towers after the airplanes hit.
- Survivors of the attack on the World Trade Center towers will suffer much grief and depression.
For further help refer to our handout, specifically, Brainstorming in the Composing Process section. Another good source is the computer program Invent.