Essay Writing: Brainstorming

Even if you've got great structure, and can write effective topic sentences, there's one more thing you need to be good at to get the best marks.

Brainstorming and planning quickly . What this means is that you must be able to think of ideas on the topic, note them down and organise them very fast.

Failing to brainstorm (or spew out) ideas and quickly plan essays is one of the biggest reasons candidates fail when writing essays. There are two reasons why you should never overlook this stage.

  1. Firstly, spewing and adding ideas in the first 5 minutes of the exam, gives you a structure to follow and ideas to include so you actually save time while writing. You don't want to have to think about writing correct English and your vocabulary at the same time as coming up with ideas!

  2. If you run out of time at the end of the exam, at least you have some notes which you could quickly add as sentences in the final paragraph. This way the examiner can see that you had a complete idea and a conclusion for your essay, so you'll lose fewer marks for organisation and cohesion.

Many candidates get stuck at the brainstorming (or spewing) stage. The good news is that, just like with anything else, practice is the answer.

How to brainstorm/spew ideas

  1. The point of brainstorming is that ALL your ideas go down on paper. You select the good ones afterwards, not before you write them down. Many people think everything they write has to be good, but that's not true at this stage. Just write whatever comes into your mind on the topic.

  2. It often helps to draw two columns (agree / disagree. for / against, advantages / drawbacks). While not all essays have to be answered with this two-sided structure, it's the best way to start brainstorming as it helps to get more ideas onto the paper.

  3. Now write 3 to 5 ideas (not sentences) in each column.

How to build and organise your plan

  1. Choose your best ideas in each column. Cross out any stupid ideas.

  2. Think about supporting arguements and examples for each good idea.

  3. Make brief notes – one or two keywords about your examples and supporting arguments.

  4. Write a number next to the points you want to use to show which order you will write about them.

  5. Think about your topic sentence to introduce your groups of ideas.

  6. Start writing

Improvement tip

Take an essay topic question (e.g. 'Sport has an important role in society') and quickly brainstorm ideas and make a plan on a piece of paper (as per the example above). Try and complete this brainstorming as fast as you can. For a model essay answer of the 'Sport has an important role in society' - click here.

Keep practising with different essay topic questions, until you can complete your brainstorming and planning in five minutes.

You can find a range of essay topics here:


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