The Ten Commandments of Brainstorming

By Steven Barnes • May 13, 2021

Life is trying things to see if they work - Ray Bradbury.

Creativity is a matter of both self-expression and problem solving. In both arenas, the ability to generate vast quantities of ideas is essential: “The only way to have a good idea is by coming up with a lot of bad ideas!”

One way of approaching this is the process known as “brainstorming,” where two or more people work together to generate solutions for a given problem. Few things can be more practical, not only as a direct means of solving issues or creating ideas, but as a pure exercise in contacting creative “flow.”

Here are ten principles that apply to this practice:

1) Ideas

We never lack ideas. What we lack is confidence that those ideas are good enough. Everyone goes quietly insane every night. Creativity is tapping into that infinite flow of possibilities.

Exercise: Keep a digital recorder by the side of your bed. When you wake up after a dream, record its content. In the morning, transcribe.

2) Brainstorming

Brainstorming is this process of flow-tapping, performed in a “mastermind” of two or more people.

Exercise: Using a digital recorder to track results, you and your partner(s) write the problem on a piece of paper and tack it to the wall. Now, for fifteen minutes, each of you take turns proposing a solution. Go fast! Prizes for the most answers and the silliest answers. At the end of fifteen minutes, list the answers and discuss. You will find hidden gems.

3) Mindstorming

Mindstorming is the same thing, in a solitary process.

Exercise: Think of five people you admire. Write out what you think each of them would say about your current problem or situation.

4) The First Step

The first step is to clearly define the situation as it exists. A poorly defined problem creates anxiety and confusion.

5) Study

Study the problem as deeply as possible. Look at it from every perspective.

Exercise: Think of the last argument you had. Try to see the situation from a) Your perspective. b) Your opponent’s perspective. c) A neutral perspective. Do this respecting the other person’s perspective. Don’t try to “win” the argument, try to understand how an intelligent, moral person could see things differently.

6) Take a Break

Once you have defined the situation and researched obsessively, take a break and do something completely different. It is no accident that ideas so often come while taking a shower or exercising.

7) Keep Moving

If possible, conduct your brainstorming session while walking. Get the blood moving! Aristotle, one of the smartest human beings ever to record his thoughts, was known as the “Peripatetic Philosopher” due to his habit of teaching and brainstorming while walking. Capture every idea, regardless of their immediate utility. Carry a digital recorder, 3X5 cards, Post-It Notes, Mind-mapping software on your Smartphone, outliners, drawing programs, etc.

8) Silly Ideas

You must generate “silly” ideas. Give yourself the command that at least 10% of your ideas will be nutty, impossible, even mildly profane. Giving yourself permission to be wild and crazy actually opens up the doors of creativity. The more embarrassed you are by this notion, the more you need it! This is the step that people will nod “sure” about, and then “forget” to actually use.

9) Ignore the Voices

Learn to ignore the voices in your head that say “That’s no good. That won’t work.” This is the same voice that creates writer’s block. It will never shut up completely…that is not its job. Its job is to criticize. You must learn to listen to a younger, wilder, crazier, more creative non-linear part of your mind.

10) Fast Then Slow

And finally: Write your first drafts fast, and then rewrite slowly. Ray Bradbury said that your first drafts should be like running barefoot through the grass. Be absurd, romantic, mischievous, and absurd. Let that creative “child” out. The “editing” mode is the time for the “adult” to make an appearance. What stops our creativity is the lie that your “brainstorming” ideas have to be polished gems. That is precisely wrong, and allowing your inner critics to win. Yeah, most of what you gush will be horse crap. But don’t worry about that, and keep digging…there’s a pony in there somewhere!

Write with Passion!

Bonus Technique:

Every movie you watch, every book you read, think of three different ways it might have begun differently. (Begun earlier? Later? In a different location? With a different character? A different tone?). And then three different ways it might have ended differently (“Up” ending? “Down” ending? Switch genres suddenly? Switch tones drastically?)

Steven Barnes