“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” —Albert Einstein
The first step of the writing process (that is, after carefully reading and understanding the assignment) is to generate ideas for your project. In shorter versions of the writing process, or in processes designed for other kinds of writing, step 1 is sometimes called “gathering” because it also includes doing research.
In expository writing, though, even for a research paper, you will want to "generate ideas" first. Why? First, you will want to see what you already know and think about a subject. Second, you will want to see what ideas you can come up with yourself. And third, the methods below will help you define what questions you want to start your research with.
There are various ways to generate ideas for your writing. People think and learn differently, so try them all and choose the one that’s best for you—although if you have never tried freewriting or “moodling,” described below, I strongly encourage you to try them both at least once. My experience is that students are usually happily surprised at the results.
Moreover, freewriting is often useful to non-native speakers of English who still struggle with fluency (i.e., writing quickly or relatively easily, in contrast to accuracy, which an overriding concern for at this stage of the writing process can inhibit the flow of words and ideas).
As you will recall from "Whom are you writing for?", the writing process starts as writer-oriented and gradually moves toward a reader-oriented product. Thus this step should be thought of as completely writer-oriented. Forget about your reader and assume that no one is going to see your notes or ideas from this stage. Let your ideas come out freely and be as wild and crazy as they seem. If you immediately censor what you think might be “dumb” or “silly” ideas, you may eliminate good ideas or connections to good ideas and are not really letting yourself think. As one moderately successful scientist (pictured at left) once put it, "Imagination is greater than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."
There are four primary methods of generating ideas:
Photo "Büro im Wasser" from Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-08112 / CC-BY-SA. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo "Ideas" ©2014 Rafal Knop