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With almost any writing assignment, a moment of unease may settle in your mind. A blank document sits open on your computer screen: the white page staring you in the face and the cursor blinking in anticipation. “Where do I begin?” is a question that overwhelms even the most experienced writers. But by developing pre-writing habits, writers can learn to overcome the daunting task of starting any writing project.

Through the process of invention (often referred to as pre-writing), writers formulate an abundance of thoughts, ideas, and arguments on a given topic. Ancient rhetors, such as Aristotle, defined invention as “finding and displaying the available arguments on any issue" [1]. Gathering information, asking questions, and evaluating your own beliefs and attitudes about a subject are components of invention and are an important step in the writing process.

There are several techniques writers use for invention. Figuring out which technique or combination of techniques work best for you may depend on the genre and/or topic you are writing about.

One way to begin focusing your thoughts would be to analyze the rhetorical situation (link to rhetorical situation on wiki) surrounding your writing assignment. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What is the topic and message you want to communicate?
  • What is your purpose as the writer?
  • Who is your audience?

Once you’ve determined a topic and general direction to investigate in your writing, you can explore your ideas further through various invention strategies:


Brainstorming generates ideas through listing key words or phrases that relate to a given topic. A writer can brainstorm alone or with other people. Try giving yourself a time limit and list anything that comes to mind about the topic. Remember, this is your list so there is no need edit or make it pretty. When you finish, review what you wrote, jot down any additional thoughts, and look “for patterns of interesting ideas or one central idea” [2].

Free Writing

When a writer free writes to formulate ideas, he or she does not worry about syntax, spelling, or grammar. The point of free writing is to write continuously about a topic without stopping or editing your thoughts. Again, try giving yourself a time limit and write for its entirety. When you are done, read what you have written and look for “important insights and ideas” that you can potentially expand upon for your writing assignment [2].


Asking and answering questions is another invention strategy used generate ideas about a topic. There are two types of questions writers often ask to gain a better understanding of a given subject matter: questions to describe a topic and questions to explain a topic [2].

According to Andrea Lunsford’s The Everyday Writer, there are a variety of questions to ask based on each type:

Questions to Describe a Topic

  1. What is it?
  2. What caused it?
  3. What is it like or unlike?
  4. What larger system is your topic a part of?
  5. What do people say about it?

Questions to Explain a Topic

  1. Who is doing it?
  2. What is at issue?
  3. When does it take place?
  4. Where is it happening?
  5. Why does it occur?
  6. How is it done?


[1] Crowley, Sharon and Debra Hawhee. Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 4th ed. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009. Print.

[2] Lunsford, Andrea. The Everyday Writer with Exercises. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. Print.

Here are some additional sources to help you with invention: