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Freewriting and clustering are two forms of brainstorming; both can help you take a general topic and make it more specific.
Develop your topic idea with clustering
Define freewriting and explain how to use it to help you generate ideas about your topic
In both exercises, it is important to record everything that comes to mind without editing yourself during the process.
Both are tools to generate many different questions and ideas for you to choose from when formulating your topic.
Freewriting is an exercise that helps you generate new ideas about a topic by asking you to write whatever comes to mind when you think of a text or topic.
Clustering (or concept mapping) is an exercise that helps you refine ideas and narrow the scope of a topic by making a map or diagram of different things you associate with a central topic.
A diagram showing the relationships among concepts, with the concepts drawn in rectangular boxes, which are connected with labelled arrows that denote the relationships between concepts, such as "is a," "gives rise to," "results in," "is required by," or "contributes to.
Clustering might involve charting out thoughts about the different sides of Humbert Humbert's personality—evil, crazy, manipulative, manipulated, hapless—then following each of those general categories toward more specific examples of his behavior.
For example, "manipulative" might lead you to his direct address of his readers from the get-go, that he assumes he has more than one reader (self-aggrandizement), that he expresses deep remorse but in suspiciously flowery language, that he constructs his descriptions of Quilty to fit the "evil twin" archetype, etc.
The same kind of branching out could happen for each of Humbert's listed personality traits.
Freewriting might look something like this: Humbert Humbert is a pedophile, which is pretty creepy.
He takes Lolita away from her childhood and, in a lot of ways, ruins her life.
But he recognizes that he's being judged by the world for his actions and he says he's full or remorse.
Is he sincere or just playing it up for the "jury"?
He sounds sincere, though flowery.
Do his elaborate professions of guilt work to absolve him or make him seem purely theatrical?
What about how he talks about Lolita?
He doesn't even call her by her real name, which is Dolores.
In a lot of ways, she's more of an object of his fantasy than a real person.
Does that make his behavior less condemnable because he's clearly nuts?
Or more condemnable because he's unempathetic to the extreme?
If you have no idea what to write about, pre-writing can help get ideas flowing.
Ways to pre-write include brainstorming, making word webs, and outlining.
In addition, if you have a broad question in mind, brainstorming can help you develop it into a workable topic.
Two exercises that are particularly useful are freewriting and clustering.
Freewriting will come in handy if you have a general topic but are not sure what you want to say about it.
Get a pen and paper (or open up a blank computer document) and set yourself a time limit.
Then start writing about your general topic, recording thoughts as they come into your mind.
Do not edit as you go, or even look back at what you have written.
Just keep moving on as thoughts occur to you.
The purpose of freewriting is to develop ideas spontaneously and naturally.
Consider this example, a two-minute freewrite on the topic "Revenge in Hamlet:"
"People say Hamlet is a play about revenge, but is revenge successful if he dies at the end?
Is killing Claudius enough to make Hamlet happy?
Did he succeed at anything, or did he just destabilize Denmark further?
Fortinbras seems like a better king - at least he is interested in government.
But he isn't the rightful ruler, which is part of why Hamlet was upset with his uncle in the first place.
Or was he?
Is he more upset about the murder or the usurpation?
Does he want to rule or just to get revenge?
Is his quest for vengeance the act of a justice-seeking prince or are revenge and rulership at cross-purposes from each other?
There are a few good things to notice about this freewrite.
First, the paragraph has many more questions than observations or answers.
This is perfectly fine. Freewriting is not a place to work out answers to questions, but rather to figure out exactly what question you want to ask.
The other thing to notice is the general trajectory of the paragraph.
The different questions in that paragraph are connected to each other, albeit very loosely.
Again, this is fine. Freewriting does not need to be rigidly organized as long as it stays relatively close to its general topic.
Often, freewrites will end up having one line of thought carry through them even without you trying to connect everything.
There is a significant difference between the starting point of "Is Hamlet's revenge successful?" and the final questions of "Does Hamlet want to get revenge or become a ruler?" and "Can you seek revenge and be a ruler?" All three are different approaches to the same broader question, though.
In fact, those second questions can be refined into more specific answers to the first one.
A topic from the first question might be "Hamlet does not successfully achieve his goal of vengeance." A topic from the last questions might be "Hamlet fills his stated goal of killing Claudius, but since he leaves Denmark without a king he ultimately fails at correcting the wrong he wanted to correct." Both ideas are far more focused than what you started with.
Clustering or Concept Mapping
We have already discussed the importance of choosing a topic with the appropriate scope for your paper.
If you are having trouble breaking a big topic down into smaller ones, you might want to try clustering.
Clustering is when you write down a very broad topic or idea and then make a concept map, when you diagram smaller ideas or categories that go into the central topic.
Say you are writing a paper that teaches your classmates how to perform a task.
You have one page to provide detailed instructions about an activity.
If you have chosen "gardening" as that activity, you will not be able to give an adequate description in the space provided.
You have to choose a smaller task associated with gardening.
The question is, which one?
All the things you linked to "gardening" are smaller tasks you could describe.
You can even break them down into further levels of detail.
For example, the subcategory of "researching and purchasing plants and seeds" can be broken down into separate bubbles for research and purchasing.
The purchasing bubble could be broken down into a) where to purchase plants,b) when to purchase plants, c) how much to pay for different plants…and so on until you reach the right level of specificity.
In this way, you can break your general topic down from "explaining gardening" to something like "explaining how to purchase a sunflower plant."
The goal of clustering, much like freewriting, is to come up with lots of different possibilities.
Then you can choose which ones you think are best suited for your assignment.
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An exercise that helps you refine your ideas by making a map., An exercise in which you write a draft of your paper rapidly, from start to finish., A style of academic writing that involves a slow, thoughtful composition of thoughts., and An exercise in which you write whatever comes to mind when you think of a text or topic.
Write short descriptions of characters to clarify their motivations., Begin with a topic and write non-stop about that topic without looking back at what you've written., Write a thesis sentence, followed by bullet points with topics for each of the body paragraphs., and Take a broad topic and make a concept map, which diagrams smaller ideas that go into the broad idea.