The Writing Center

Invention,The Child Of Necessity: Getting Papers Started

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Getting a paper started is tough for every writer; it's especially hard for a student writer who doesn't get to pick her own subjects: first she must learn about a broad subject area; then, she must find some topic within that broad area to write about, always with limited space and time. And if all this isn't enough, writers also have to develop their own ideas about their topic and explain those ideas with concrete support.

Does this sound familiar? Does it sound impossible? There are many ways to go about "inventing" a short paper; what follows is one very practical process that gets results:

  1. Locate a subject: Your subject will depend on the kind of writing you are doing; if a subject has been assigned, make sure you know what it is (i.e., read the assignment sheet), and learn something about it (i.e., do your home work). Inventing a paper on a subject about which you know nothing is tough.

  2. Focus on a narrow topic: Use the invention techniques described below to figure out what specific topics are within your subject area; once you have some specific options, commit to a good one. Don't waffle.

  3. Come up with a controlling idea: No one can do this for you! Use invention techniques to help you see what you think about your topic. Again, after you have some options, pick an idea and stick to it.

  4. Generate concrete examples that you can use to develop your paper: Concrete examples and reasoning are the heart of a paper. With your topic and controlling idea in mind, use invention techniques strenuously; push your thoughts beyond generalizations to concrete examples. The clause, "I hate potatoes," is general; "the texture, color, and flavor of potatoes does nothing for me," is a more concrete statement.

Invention Techniques
(We didn't make these up: they're in the third chapter in The Allyn & Bacon Handbook)

  • Reading: use your notes on other people's ideas to jump start your own ideas, but be careful not to plagiarize.
  • Brainstorming: spend five minutes just listing ideas and then sort the list.
  • Freewriting: spend ten minutes writing about your subject or topic, reread your writing, and circle the topics or examples that you find in it.
  • Journalist's Question: consider your subject or topic and answer the questions who, what, when, where, why, and how; sort your answers, and make a list.
  • Journal Writing: keep a journal as you study your topic; reread it and circle the topics and examples that you wrote about.
  • The Many Parts Strategy: list out the parts of your subject or topic and ask of each one, "What is the use of this part or what are the consequences of this part?" Sort your answers, and you have a list.
  • Mapping:

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