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Brainstorming to Find Non-Fiction Content Ideas

By Peter B. Giblett


Generally, writing is a very individual pursuit. Many people know the act of brainstorming is done with a group. So, suggesting a writer can use brainstorming techniques may seem peculiar, odd, a curveball. Let’s look further.

The Kernel

This article continues thoughts from an earlier piece on my blog, GobbledeGoox, about developing writing ideas. Most people accept that Brainstorming is a group creativity technique which works by gathering a list of ideas. Generally, a team activity. True. However, one person can use the technique just as effectively to expand any idea. The basic concept of brainstorming is to gather ideas, nothing more. Managing the idea through the next stage, and starting to write, is another topic.

I have a whiteboard in my home office; it’s used to develop an idea from the bare bones out. The central thought is written on the board. Then, over the course of several days, many more thoughts are added to the board, including many random misguided thoughts which just come to mind. Not all ideas will be useful, but the point is if it pops into the mind it is written on the board. The intent, to generate ideas for the story.

Any idea is useful, – the reason – one idea can trigger another over a few days. The topic being developed is a long way from being a first draft. Brainstorming opens the possibility to discover whether it can turn it into something worthwhile. No decision is made as to whether any of the content has merit. Use the exercise as a dumping ground for ideas. The point is to build a non-linear list of thoughts, randomly jotted down on the page. They are supposed to be random and are sometimes very basic. The kernel of an idea.

Ideas Matter

Any idea can be thrown in, whether it is relevant or not, irrespective of whether it offers any value, regardless of cost. The point of the exercise to simply to throw ideas into a proverbial hat. When there are enough ideas, you may be able to do something with them.

Through this article, the discussion is about writing words, but pictures can also be as powerful.

Develop Ideas

Brainstorming to Find Non-Fiction Content Ideas

To develop an idea beyond the limitations of personal thought, ask a friend, or your spouse to add their thoughts. Give them a brief synopsis, the central thought. Ask them what is important.

Do not be judgemental, when they go in a different direction. The purpose of that step was to look in a different direction. Their mind differs to yours. Gathering is the most important part of the process and is worthy of the time to allow all thoughts to develop.

Pin your sheet of ideas to the wall. Spend some time looking at it each day. Look at it first thing in the morning, read each of your notes. Set your subconscious mind working on the problem as you get on with other things. Come back to it later in the day to add the latest ideas. When you come back, vow to add at least one more thought. This way the idea list grows.

Viable or not?

If, after much consideration, the core idea has less than 12 thoughts added to the board, it is likely the subject is not yet fully formed. There is not enough to generate a story to publish anywhere. If the idea has merit, and can be used in the future, then jot it down in your journal for re-investigation. Review these notes again in a month, 3-months, 6-months, etc. Add more to them. The subconscious mind will work on them while you do other things.

If you have more thoughts on your list then developing it further becomes an immediate possibility. Go to the Library or Google to perform some research those one-word notions. Perhaps Steven Covey said something on the topic in chapter 14 of “The 8th Habit.” Re-read that section and question how it applies. Every bit of research will help you gain a fuller understanding the topic;, it will help explain it to the uninitiated (or whoever your intended audience is).

Ideas and their Pro’s and Con’s

With your central topic in mind, you can assess the merit of each of the thoughts you identified.

Brainstorming to Find Non-Fiction Content Ideas peter giblett

One method is questioning if they support or oppose your central thesis. Those that support the idea are retained and built upon, while those supporting the counter-argument may be either de-emphasized or ignored (unless you are creating an academic thesis).

Another method is to question how important the topic is to your audience. What is important to them? How does it impact them? What do they need?

Developing a Sub-Idea Further

One impact of brain storming is that a lot of thoughts are thrown in. I remember one in a brainstorming meeting many years ago. The comment was a simple, innocent one, but one that made everybody think – the question:

“What if it causes the computer to crash?”

The comment, scrawled on a post-it note, was a sobering one. It brought focus. The project would add a new computer program to an existing system. All the professionals in the room said this could not happen. Were we too overconfident? We could not afford to take the chance. This question may not be relevant to writing your next blog post, but ‘what if’ questions are ones we should always be prepared to ask.

Often it means we need to develop a sub-idea, take the thought further, dig deeper. Perhaps the answer isn’t as simple as first thought. Do more questions need to be asked?

Testing Ideas

At some point, you hope to have generated enough ideas. The question then becomes whether something can be done with them.

Brainstorming to Find Non-Fiction Content Ideas peter giblett tw drops of ink

In my experience, this is the time you need to test each thought in turn. See whether they continue to have relevance to what you intend to write. Their relevance seems to fit on a sliding scale, somewhere between the following cases:

The Carl Osborn Test

Carl Osborn was a person I once worked with who resisted every idea for change ever suggested (the name has been changed to protect the guilty).

His two main questions in life were either “what does it matter?” and “why should I care?” At other times, he would say, “I don’t know why you would do that! It won’t work.” Forever the cynic. Nothing new would ever work for him. The world was best without change. These are precisely the types of arguments you must counter for your words to gain acceptance.

His whole approach to life was best summed up by ignoring change. I add this philosophy because you may need to consider it for each idea. Will your audience simply scratch their heads and wonder, what the heck are they talking about? If it is going to pass the Carl Osborne test, you will have an audience who cares about what you intend to write about.

If most of the world doesn’t care, the wisest choice is not publishing your words now. However, a need to publish may exist, based on the need to change how people think. A case of choosing your time or developing and educating your audience over time? This will at some point in the future allow you to publish your idea.

The Connie Beverstone Test

Connie Beverstone was another person I worked with. Her approach to everything in life was entirely different. Her main concern was summed up in the statement “show the benefits.” The philosophy was that anything has potential value if the benefits can be shown. In my experience, few ideas have benefits that are self-evident. Most must be identified through further thought and analysis.

For success here, you may need to take each idea and break it down further to its core meaning. Then, define the benefits based on the detail. This very much depends on the third level of brainstorming and assessment of an idea’s potential value. This value needs assessing.

Question the Idea

Many ideas we have in brainstorming don’t add anything to your proposed central thesis, and it is right to question whether they should be included within your final draft.

The point about raising the idea was to test it and decide if it adds any value. How you measure value will differ from post to post, one way is to look at any idea you have listed and ask what role it plays. If it doesn’t have a role then it is likely best left out.

The result of your exercise is that you should have some idea of the direction you will need to work in; perhaps it will require further research to find the right information. The point of this exercise is that you now have further directions to pursue to complete your work.

The brainstorming stage simply draws out the idea and its components. There is still more work to complete your material.

Monthly Contributor: Peter B. Giblett


Peter B. Giblett is a freelance editor and writer with a background in business and technology management. He is also a non-practicing lawyer. English born, now living in Canada. He’s an Alumni of City University (London) and University of West London. Entrant and winner of National Novel Writing Month 2015, a novel he is currently editing. He runs his own blog called GobbledeGoox, which provides thoughts on writing, blogging, words, and wordcraft.

Published posts on Two Drops of Ink:

1) The Non-Fiction Contract

2) The Simple way to Write Non-fiction Creatively

3) Living a Golden Era? Are you a Serious Writer?

4) Tick to Nothing – A Poem

5) Hardwired to Connect, or Triggered in Childhood

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  1. Peter, Brainstorming is such a valuable tool to use. Thanks for sharing specific details of how it works for you. I use it as well and I teach my students to do it. Kids are much more likely to write if they don’t have to start out with sentences…but just a hint of an idea. Then when they get their brainstorming paper and circle the points that all go together a piece takes shape and they are more willing to try to make each circled point into a sentence. You can never brainstorm too much in my opinion. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Fascinating read Peter! I am familiar with brainstorming and use it often with my coaching clients, but have never considered using it on a whiteboard in the methods you’ve suggested for writing. I appreciate you opening up that idea in your post! Certainly has many potential benefits (and I think Connie Beverstone would agree).
    On another note, I have met and worked with some Carl Osborn(s) as well as some Connie Beverstone(s). I much prefer working with Connie 🙂

    • Yes those two personalities are very different. But when you are building a writing project each may have relevant questions that have to be considered.

  3. I like your approach Peter. A well thought out executed plan. Ideas and thoughts can move rapidly from paper to oblivion, just that fast. I like mapping my thoughts on paper. Circles, lines, and all kind of shapes to capture thoughts. Your post is exceptionally well thought out.

  4. Thanks, Peter. You can never have too many ideas. I think organizing them into proper alignment with the specific topic or mission is the real challenge. You gave us much to think about.

  5. We think alike, Peter. I’ll take one aspect, research, use some tangential thinking and brainstorm individually. Great ideas here, and let’s all try to be like Connie Beverstone.

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