Exercises and Tools #3: Creative Methods to Generate Ideas

You have definitely used, or at least heard about, clustering, mind-mapping, and similar tools to collect and create ideas. We learned about them back in school. I consider these methods as widespread cultural tools for thinking on paper. Only recently, though, I learned about their origin.

As far as I know, Gabriele L. Rico was the first to present clustering in her book Writing the Natural Way (1983). Rico wrote about developing creativity methodically. She introduced clustering as a method to generate ideas, linking it to the insights of brain research. In her book she also mentions mind-mapping, which was developed by Tony Buzan in Britain at around the same time.

People often confuse the two methods of generating ideas. True, they have a lot in common and yet they differ. Clustering means freely collecting ideas that come to mind, which are connected to a key word or phrase. You don’t have to worry about right or wrong – everything is valid. As you might remember, the key term in the middle of a sheet of paper and every new term you add have a circle around them. Whenever a chain of associations is exhausted, you start anew at the key term to create another one. You can do this exercise in a specific period of time, say ten minutes, like the freewriting exercises. Whenever you don’t know another term, you draw circles around the term in the centre while thinking. But don’t think too hard or rationally; try to use the creative part of your brain.

As for the mind map, you don’t need to limit your time working on it. Although the mind map works with similar principles, it demands a more formal approach. Starting with a central term or phrase you create hierarchical chains of associations. Each new term relates to the one before, becoming a sub-category. The farther out you get from the centre, the thinner the connecting lines and the more specific the terms or ideas will be. For the mind map, thus, you think more about the relationships between ideas, whereas in clustering you don’t have to care about that.

For myself, I understand the clustering to be a simple tool to generate new ideas and associations, and the mind map a more demanding tool for generating and ordering ideas. I don’t use them that often myself, but sometimes they work well for collecting ideas for a paper or chapter. Some people use them to take notes during lectures. Depending on the purpose, both clustering and the mind map can help you find new ideas. They both allow you to ‘storm your brain’ when rational and logical thinking don’t take you further.

Next week, I will talk about a trick for text revision – revising with your ear.

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