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.