Hege Library & Learning Technologies

Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

Loosening Heuristics

Now let's look at "loosening" heuristics. These are intended for those who tend to get blocked up when inventing and who need to get the free flow of creative ideas going. Here are some examples (I'm brainstorming):

  • brainstorming
  • freewriting
  • looping (chained freewriting)
  • clustering
  • branching
  • mind-mapping
  • visualizing
  • writing dialogues
  • talking into a tape recorder

Brainstorming and freewriting are totally open-ended. One is encouraged to free-associate and proceed randomly, seeing where your intuition leads you. The key with these is to do what Natalie Goldberg advises,

Push yourself beyond when you think you are done with what you have to say. Go a little further. Sometimes when you think you are done, it's just the edge of the beginning. Probably that's why we decide we're done. It's getting too scary. We are touching down onto something real. It is beyond the point when you think you are done that often something strong comes out.

My personal favorite from the above list of loosening heuristics is clustering and this is the one that I'd like to illustrate. This method first appeared in Gabriele Rico's Writing the Natural Way (1983), though in a slightly different form from what I'm presenting. It proceeds by random association but it's not quite as open-ended as brainstorming. It also can lead more directly to a well-developed organizational structure. Let me illustrate:

Let's suppose that a faculty colleague colleague asks me at the last minute to write a recommendation letter for him because he is coming up for a review. I want to write a good letter but I also want to do it quickly because I've got a ton of other work I need to tend to. So I get out a piece of paper, ready to cluster.

My subject is, let's say, W.H. I put his name in the middle of the page and draw an oval around it. Now what categories of things am I going to want to write about him? I start brainstorming, putting the category names in a circle around the center oval, as if they were in orbit. I connect them to the center oval with spokes.

Because the criteria important to the college are teaching, service to the community, and scholarship, I put these down for sure and keep brainstorming. I decide that other things I might want to write about are . . . hmmm . . . character . . . personality. . . commitment to high standards . . . W.H as a departmental colleague.

At this point I have the subject of several potential paragraphs of the letter.

Now I think about concrete details for each topic. This means branching into the level of specifics. Let's take scholarship. I know that in the last year, W.H. has published a book review and a scholarly article. He has also delivered an academic paper at a conference. These

are subsets of "scholarship," so I connect them via spokes to it. What is emerging is a paragraph. All I need to do to fill this paragraph out is to branch out one more time into an even more specific level of detail by identifying the specific scholarly works. In my letter I can then comment concretely on each.

I can follow this same procedure with any of the other topics. If I'm exploring "character," for example, I can identify certain character traits and then give concrete examples. Presto--another paragraph.

The beauty of this scheme is that I have not pre-committed myself to any particular mode of organization. The topics float in a state of perfect equality until I commit myself to deciding which ones I will include in the paper and then decide to arrange them in a particular order. By then, I will have pre-mapped the whole composition: I'll have my ideas and I'll have my concrete examples. Now all I do is write them down in coherent paragraphs.

What I've just demonstrated is a simple way of using clustering to break open a subject. Clustering has more complex potentialities, though. Let's look at how we might use it to reach our goal of exciting discovery thinking.