4 Generating Ideas with Visuals

When you start any piece of writing, keep two rhetorical aspects firmly in mind:  audience and purpose.  Every writing situation requires inquiry:  What do the readers know?  What evidence would best convince them?  What genre fits the audience/purpose? What style?  You would not want to cover “historical” information, for instance, if your reader already knows that material, so why spend time generating unnecessary content?  If you are tasked to research the reasons for a particular problem, your paper had better not argue its solutions.  The least important (even useless) document is one that offers the reader gratuitous information.

Granted, everyone generates ideas differently, but most novice writers fail to create enough focused ideas, thus limiting their papers’ contents.  Whether you brainstorm (list ideas), free-write (continuous writing with no worry about grammar), talk, research, or use other ideas-generating tactics, spend plenty of time on this step.  By experimenting with different strategies, you will generate more ideas than necessary, and all those choices will provide different planning opportunities for your document’s content.


Reading Actively

Often, generating ideas will require a visualization activity, such as annotation (see the “Active Reading” chapter for a more detailed analysis of annotation and other reading strategies).  In other words, as you read an article, chapter, report, etc., put the author’s points into your own words (paraphrase), note important focusing ideas, highlight evidence, ask questions, jot down reactions, even reference comparisons to other works.  Through the active process of annotation, you will break a text into dozens of specific ideas (such as the headings in this chapter), which then provide you with focusing and organizing choices for your paper.  When you annotate effectively, you create a visual record of your engagement with the text.


Using Tables

To channel your different analyses, try using actual visual elements, such as a table.  If you know that you need to build a proposal, you could create table subtitles around that document’s common sections and then fill in those four columns’ cells:  the Introduction, covering the issue/problem; a Methods section, explaining how you went about your work; a Results part, dealing with what happened or what you found; and a Discussion ending, summarizing the proposal and findings.  For an academic assignment, you could create table columns around the direction’s key terms, such as “background,” “summary,” “causes,” “effects,” etc., and for a professional one, you could turn instructions, whether written or verbal, into subtitles that reflect the paper’s purpose.  Whether public, academic, or professional, a common writing purpose involves explaining a subject’s “problems” and “solutions.”

For instance, consider that your supervisor wants you to research (both through the Web and via personal interviews with peers) potential benefits and problems involving adding a “Casual Friday” policy.  While reviewing articles through various business sources and after interviewing co-workers, you gradually fill in a table like this:

Adding a Casual Friday Policy


Creates a more easy-going atmosphere

Saves wear and tear on professional attire

Increases camaraderie

Raises productivity


Conflicts–rifts between employees over garb

Expense of adding new casual clothes

Competition–complaints about certain attire

More socializing

Quite often, since you will become an expert on an issue only by studying it, you will need to do extensive research in order to fill in table cells, which might also contain a column for “Evidence” and perhaps for “Solutions” (depending on the assignment—i.e., on what you are tasked to do).  If the table above contained a right-hand row subtitled “Solutions,” then some cells could be filled by ideas like “adding details and warnings to the policy” and “communicating the policy through emails and posters.”  By channeling instructions into a table, you not only list a variety of comparable ideas (in a column), but also connect to contrasting ones (in the other column).  You build thought links.


Creating Maps or Diagrams

If you are an especially visual learner, use maps to break down your ideas.  Like multi-directional flow charts, mapping allows you to see your ideas narrowing and connections forming.  For instance, say that your boss or supervisor asks you to research and report on the effects that a new technology might have on your company.  At first, you focus on the financial effects since the latest equipment tends to be expensive, but then you discover positive consequences to employee morale and to the environment.  Your map starts to look like this:

Flow Chart

Through research, you also discover that while the financial effects are negative in the present, they improve with time, so you draw more map lines from “financial” to “one month, “one year,” and even “far future.”  Then you discover a report of morale problems resulting from the new technology, so you make lines from “morale” to both “positive” and “negative.”  Since most of your sources will also offer proof, you can link subjects like “negative morale” to actual evidence such as statistics and examples.  As you extend the mapping from the original circled idea, you reveal the complexity of the issue, for the more you learn, the more intricate the map and thus your report becomes.


Thinking Opposites

Here’s another viewing tip: Think opposites.  Quite often, a problem will have a dual nature, such as a financial one involving too many expenditures and not enough added revenue.  Solutions ideas also might lead to interesting opposites:

For almost any rhetorical situation, you can often find two sides, such as when you argue (your opponents’ points vs your own), reflect on your own efforts (what you did well vs what you did poorly), focus on an issue (the causes of it vs the effects), or critique an argument (the writer’s successful rhetorical tactics vs his or her less persuasive ones, such as sarcasm shown in a serious argument, biased sources used, or even logical fallacies displayed).  This idea of opposites can often give you a unique perspective, which you can then use to plan one body paragraph or even your entire paper.


Funneling Thoughts through Organizational Patterns

To organize your thoughts effectively, you need to group your content logically, giving readers clear paths to follow.  In fact, the following common organizational patterns can even help you to generate more ideas by viewing a problem from various angles:

Classification: view through a division into parts. What specific problems, effects, and solutions exist?  Consider categories such as financial, ethical, practical, environmental, etc., and then break those ideas into narrower ones—e.g., land, water, air from the map above.
Illustration: picture according to evidence What examples show one specific problem, effect, or solution? Perhaps quoted experts, incidents, or statistics can build one paragraph.
Compare-contrast: look for opposites Are any of the problems, effects, or solutions contrasting ideas?  Maybe one effect would be immediate, another long term.
Process: consider steps or stages What specific process exists?  Do the effects lead from one to another?
Cause-effect: think about reasons or consequences What reasons explain a problem or solution?  Maybe one cause or consequence deserves more of a spotlight.

Note how the organizational patterns guide you toward a variety of analyses.  First, they lead you to break down your issue, making the ideas more specific and simpler to communicate and develop.  Next, they require that you generate examples for your points, and then the varied patterns twist your analysis by focusing on contrasts, on chronology, and on reasoning.  In short, by applying just one problem or solution to these five common ways of connecting information, you can generate a plethora of ideas.  Remember that planning is critical thinking.

An assignment’s rhetorical situation is the key starting point for generating ideas, so know what your instructor, boss, or simply the audience wants in a paper—i.e., your purpose for writing, your specific readers, your genre, style, not to mention the content for your argument.  To break content into manageable ideas, you will often have to do some research (you can get some help with this complex step in the “Research and Finding Credible Sources” chapter under Discourse Community Knowledge).  The ideas-generating step should be a long, sometimes frustrating, but always rewarding one (even fun!), and never forget that all writing-process stages “loop,” repeat themselves, as you continually evaluate and revise your work.  In fact, you might still be generating ideas even after you finish the document, for is a text ever really finished?

Media Attributions

  • FlowChart
  • Continuum


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Thinking Rhetorically: Writing for Professional and Public Audiences by Roger Williams University Department of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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