Discovering ideas and learning to use heuristics

Whenever you begin a writing task, you are confronted with the problem of what to say about your subject. Even if you are writing about something extremely familiar, retrieving what you know from your memory and organizing it into some sort of plan is necessary. As a writer, you must learn how to view a subject from different perspectives, both to understand the subject more fully and to explain it with clarity.

The techniques collected here are all methods for discovering ideas. The term "heuristic" is often used to describe these sort of techniques. "Heuristic" means "helping to discover or learn; guiding or furthering investigation" or finding the solution to a problem. What follows will outline several methods or heuristics. Brainstorming is one kind of heuristic, clustering is a form of brainstorming, and the Pentad is a third type of heuristic.

It is important to remember that the "name of the game" when you use a heuristic is to generate ideas; therefore, if you use one of these techniques and it generates many ideas, you are succeeding. If you use the technique, and it does not generate good results, you are either misapplying the technique (you may be using the wrong technique for your subject), or you need to apply the technique differently, or your mental processes are not suited to the technique you are using. The heuristics themselves are simply different ways of getting your mind to warm up to a subject.

Some people will find that certain heuristics work well for them while others are always awkward. This may be the result of your personality or mental style. You need to conscientiously try all the techniques with the realization that some will be more useful to you than others.

Also, certain heuristics work better with certain subjects than with others. You need to choose the correct heuristic for your subject or perhaps try more than one until you find the one that works best. And remember every heuristic has its "rules," but the name of the game is always to generate as many ideas as possible.

Freewriting is another heuristic that you have probably already tried. Freewriting requires that you write continuously -- without stopping for any pauses -- for ten to twenty minutes. Because writers often constrict their ideas by censoring themselves prematurely and worrying about surface errors, the cardinal rule of freewriting is simply to keep writing. If you cannot think of anything to write, simply draw circles or x's. Do not try to write sentences if sentences are not surfacing. Anything is legal as long as you do not stop writing.

Before you start an essay, choose the most appropriate heuristics from this list or make up your own. Use at least two for each writing project. Choose one structured and one unstructured heuristic.

Heuristic 1: Brainstorming
Heuristic 2: Brainstorming alternatives
Heuristic 3: Clustering
Heuristic 4: The Pentad
Heuristic 5: Cubing
Heuristic 6: Critical Analysis of Argumentation
Heuristic 7: Triple Viewing: Particle, Wave and Field
see Heffernan
Heuristic 8: Defining a problem with a basic question
see Heffernan
Heuristic 9: Getting reactions to your questions
see Heffernan
Heuristic 10: Using an analogy
see Heffernan
Heuristic 11: Working with a Nugget
see Heffernan
Heuristic 12:  Free Writing

HEURISTIC 1:  BRAINSTORMING





1. RECORD all your ideas on paper or a blackboard.

2. DEFER JUDGMENT. NO IDEAS SHOULD BE REJECTED. Some ideas which will appear the most silly, at first, often turn out to be the best later on. You will be able to criticize later.

3. GENERATE QUANTITY. Don't stop to judge or censor. Keep going by concentrating hard for a short period of time.

REMEMBER the first rule is to DISCOVER AS MUCH AS YOU CAN.

4. LOOSEN YOUR INHIBITIONS. Don't discourage yourself by negative reinforcement and don't struggle. Let yourself go. Loosen up.

5. TAG ON. Allow one idea to suggest another and still another. Begin to realize that your subconscious mind often sees relationships that your conscious mind does not.

6. WORK QUICKLY. Never brainstorm for longer than fifteen to twenty minutes at a time. Usually brainstorm for only five or ten minutes.

HEURISTIC 2: BRAINSTORMING ALTERNATIVES





One variation on simple brainstorming is to structure your brainstorming so that you list the characteristics of a thing and then list opposite or alternate characteristics. Remember the rules for basic brainstorming, but, in addition, restrict yourself to alternatives to the whatever you have identified. For example: you may find the food at Cowell's cafeteria inedible, so you brainstorm alternatives to this situation.

CAFETERIA FOOD INEDIBLE

bring lunch
go off campus
get your slave to deliver
steal someone's bag lunch
lobby the administration for better food
get the newspaper to print an expose
 
 

HEURISTIC 3: CLUSTERING





Clustering is still another form of brainstorming and the same rules apply as for technique one, but in addition:
 

1. Place a word or phrase that signifies your topic or problem in the center of your paper or blackboard. Circle that word or phrase.

2. As you brainstorm anything that comes into mind, group ideas which seem to relate together. Don't work too hard at this; just put things together which seem to relate. As you work, the clustering will begin to suggest the relationships between associations you are making. It is very important to realize that the circular nature of the clustering on the page actually helps you to make connections your conscious mind would not ordinarily make.

3. Never cluster for longer than 15 or 20 minutes, usually only 5 or 10. Never censor anything you think of and do not worry if what is popping into your head seems appropriate or logical. Your non-rational, intuitive mind knows better than your conscious mind what to do in this instance. Try to produce a great many words or phrases.

4. Create a topic sentence or thesis statement for one or more of these groups. You need not use all the ideas with which you have played.

The advantage to this technique over mere brainstorming a list is that it break the linear order of the conscious mind. When you write things in a straight list, you do not immediately see the relationships between the elements on the list because they are separated physically from related elements on the page.

CLUSTERING "DRAGON"





Your clusterings should look like this, if not at first then very soon.
 
 

scales beady eyes
big teeth
snake
Hobbit - fantasy green monster wings
lizard
 
 
 
 

forked tongue
purple smoke

myth
fire breather Princess
knight
sword
slayer

DRAGON

good
"Puff" magic pointed tail
evil water
dungeon
castle
China
hungry

Hiroshima





Here is one possible topic sentence constructed from this clustering.

Most people in Western culture think of dragons as evil, green monsters who live in caves, guarding secret treasures and breathing fire through their big teeth while they flap their great white wings; however, in Oriental cultures, the dragon is a symbol of ultimate power and ultimate good.

CLUSTERING "PUMA"

domestic sleek cat
 precision

beautiful

tennis shoe

wild cat
secretive
silent sneaky

PUMA
prowler
black
Africa
fast jungle
hunter big feet
sharp claws

large teeth whiskers
loner

The sleek, black puma prowls secretively through the wild African jungle, its bright green eyes flashing, its wide paws sneaking silently, its sharp claws and white teeth ready for raw meat.
 
 

HEURISTIC 4: THE PENTAD

The Pentad is a very useful technique for certain kinds of subjects. What follows are three different Pentads for three different types of subjects

THE PENTAD FOR EVENTS

AGENT -- Who did it?

Was the primary actor human? Was something non-human the cause of the action (a machine, nature)?

ACT -- What happened?

What was it? What was done? Who or what was affected or changed? Was the action physical or mental?

SCENE -- WHERE and WHEN was it done?

What time in history, what time of the year, what time of the day, etc.?

PURPOSE and CONSEQUENCE -- WHY was it done? WHAT EFFECT did it have?

Was there a broader purpose, reason or explanation than is at first apparent?

AGENCY -- HOW was it done? By what means or with what was it done?

Was the action on purpose, planned, accidental or spontaneous?
 
 

THE PENTAD FOR LITERATURE

ACT = plot

AGENT = characters

AGENCY = medium (film, book, etc.)

genre (play, poem, story)

style or language

SCENE = scene (setting, time and place)

PURPOSE = motivation (why the characters do what they do)

 

THE PENTAD FOR DESCRIPTION AND DEFINITION

 

WHAT is it?

 How does it contrast with x or y?


HOW does it work/change?

WHAT are its parts?

HOW much can it change and still be itself?

HOW does it fit into the system of __________?

 

Heuristic 5: Cubing

 Cubing combines focused free writing with specific questions like the Pentad. Write non-stop in answer to the following questions as they apply to your subject. Cubing asks six interrelated questions. This provides different perspectives on your subject.
 

  1. Describe your subject. (How does it appear to you? What are its distinctive characteristics?)


 

  1. Compare your subject. (What is it like? What is it not like?)


 

  1. Connect your subject. (What can you connect it with? What does it remind you of? What else does it make you think of?)


 

  1. Analyze your subject. (What makes it like it is? What aspects of the subject are most notable?)


 

  1. Apply your subject. (How can it be used? What purpose does it serve? What is its function?)


 

  1. Argue for or against your subject. (Define an issue and take a position.)

Heuristic 6: Critical Analysis of Argumentation

One of the most common college assignments involves responding to a position taken in a published essay or book. To do this, a student must know how to read and judge arguments -- the central ideas in essays which seek to convince the reader of a particular point. In preparation for this kind of assignment, use the following questions as a heuristic?

  1. What is the thesis? Is the thesis logically supported?
  2. What did the author leave out? What alternate reasons or explanations could be used to explain the issue/subject/phenomenon?
  3. What hidden or overt assumptions does this text make about the people, events or facts surrounding this issue?
  4. What attitudes, interests, values and beliefs shaped this thesis? What is the author's stake in this issue? What is the audience's stake in this issue? How might the thesis have been shaped to conform to the reception it might receive.
  5. How is this text structured? Identify the reasons and the conclusions in the text. (Hint: these words often introduce reasons -- because, first, second, since, for, for one thing, in view of the fact that, for the reason that, is supported by, for example, also.)

 

Heuristic 7: Triple Viewing

from "Writing: A College Handbook" by Heffernan, Lincoln and Atwill

Think of your subject in its context: describe this subject to someone unfamiliar with it; describe the important people and ideas associated with this subject

Think about your subject in time:  what is the history of this subject; how has it changed over time; where could you learn more about this subject; what is your personal history with this subject; what caused this; what are the potential consequences of this; what might change about this?

Think about this subject in relation to other subjects:  can you create classifications within this subject; how is this subject similar or different from related subjects; can you create an analogy for this subject?

 


Heuristic 8: Defining a problem with a basic question

from "Writing: A College Handbook" by Heffernan, Lincoln and Atwill

Ask yourself a basic question about your topic, e.g. why did this take place?  Then use the answer to focus your topic and generate another question and another.

Heuristic 9: Getting reactions to your questions

from "Writing: A College Handbook" by Heffernan, Lincoln and Atwill

Ask someone else about your basic questions and/or topic.   Getting someone else's perspective can help break the log jam in your mind and demonstrate to you that the issue is more complex than you realize.
 

 

Heuristic 10: Using an analogy

from "Writing: A College Handbook" by Heffernan, Lincoln and Atwill

An analogy forces you to compare your subject with something that is both like and unlike it.  If you topic is abstract or mysterious, you can compare it with something concrete and known to you.   You might imagine your subject as a picture, or tell yourself a story that parrallels your topic.   Einstein and many scientists who have made major discoveries used thought experiments in which they imagined a circumstance and used to to develop a scientific theory.
 

 

Heuristic 11: Working with a Nugget

from "Writing: A College Handbook" by Heffernan, Lincoln and Atwill

What is the single word, image or phrase that keeps coming to mind as you think about your topic?  Think of this as a nugget.  Embellish it.   Decorate it in your mind.  Draw a picture.  This technique is almost exactly like clustering, except clustering can start anywhere.

Heuristic 12:  Free Writing

Remember these rules for free writing:

1. Don't stop for 5-10 minutes.
2. If you can't think of anything to write draw x's or circles or stars or write the same word over and over.
3. Don't worry about grammar, spelling, typing or any of that sort of thing.
4. Don't censor yourself.  The best ideas look strange at first.


EXAMPLES
 

Heuristic 5: Cubing -- Chap 7, Foreigners in Their Native Land: Manifest Destiny in the Southwest

 Cubing combines focused free writing with specific questions like the Pentad. Write non-stop in answer to the following questions as they apply to your subject. Cubing asks six interrelated questions. This provides different perspectives on your subject.
 

  1. Describe your subject. (How does it appear to you? What are its distinctive characteristics?)
  2. This is a chapter in A Different Mirror. The subject appoears to be Mexico. What is Manifest Destny? It is the notion that European Americans were meant to colonize the continent from East to West, no matter who already occupied the land. by the 1840s, America had fairly well developed the East Coast and moved inland. What we know call exas , the Southwest and California were all part of Mexico. Colonists turned their attention to these areas.
  3. In California, eneral Mariano Vallejo was removed from his home by European American usurpers who intended to wrest California away from Mexico
  4. In exas, the continued influx of Americans into Mexican territory lead to the Alamo confrontation in 1836
  5. Mexicans tried to justified slavery much as US colonists. Mexicans treated US colonists very well. They were open to these new people coming into their country. This was similar to Native Americans welcoming the first colonists.
  6. Americans treated the Mexicans like the Irish. Mexicans were forced to work in mines, they could not strike without getting replaced.
  7. Eventually Mexicans were treated as surplus labor which was in competition with "American?" labor.
  8. The terminology "Mexicans" vs Americans obscures the fact that these were European peoples fighting against one another.


 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

  1. Compare your subject. (What is it like? What is it not like?)
  2. this chapter is much like the others. It describes a people being uprooted and overwhelmed. In this case, Mexicans are attacked and brutalized. Mexicans who themselves were already mixed Spanish and Indian of various tribes and with complicated histories. The Mexican government has an army, has weapons, has access to technology, but once again, the "American" colonists win and Mexico is forced to cede about 1/3 of its overall territory to the US


 

 
 
 
 
 

instead of asking to buy California, they declared CA theirs.

Ways were invented to keep the economic balance between Mexicans and Americans unfair -- specifically, when Mexicans worked in mines they had to pay a special tax, just as African slaves hire themselves out to others but had to pay back their masters at least part of what they earned
 

  1. Connect your subject. (What can you connect it with? What does it remind you of? What else does it make you think of?)
  2. the Mexican American war is not like the Indian Wars. On a technological level the sides were more evenly matched. On the other hand, Americans were brutal towards the Mexicans, beating, raping and stealing with no pretense that these activities were moral.


 

 
 
 
 
 

The brutality demonstrated towards Mexicans was meant to break their spirit and this is a key element in the destruction of any society. This reminds me of the rape camps in Yugoslavia and the other brutalities occuring there right now. These brutalities are meant to break the families and cultures of the opposing side.
 
 
 

  1. Analyze your subject. (What makes it like it is? What aspects of the subject are most notable?)
  2. Once again westward moving Americans succeeded in annexing another portion of North American. this portion could be considered move valuable than much of the rest because of California'a gold and rich argricultural land and the oil that was to come from texas.


 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

  1. Apply your subject. (How can it be used? What purpose does it serve? What is its function?)


 

 
 
 
 
 

Once again colonists look bad, but at least they had lots of energy. this chapter fills in a gap in the book -- the story of Mexican Americans (what about Latino Americans from the Carribean and Central and South America?)

this chapter allows us to see the country as stretching from coast to coast.
 

  1. Argue for or against your subject. (Define an issue and take a position.)


 

 
 
 
 
 

of course this chapter should have been included, but as mentioned above -- there are other Latino Americans whose story also needs to be told.

It is hard not to see the US as it exists today. What would it look like if we did not possess these territories?