Brainstorming with others can create a fluid social context to exchange ideas, but when we brainstorm alone, we’re creating an expansive space to summon what we already “almost know.” The ideas we can have are primarily limited by our prior thinking and ideation in this space (see Leaps of insight emerge from prior thought).
A brainstorm’s generative, uncritical mindset might lead to surprising results, but often we also use brainstorming as a practical way to brain-dump all our ideas about a subject in one place. That may be a sign that we haven’t designed our knowledge systems as described in Knowledge work should accrete. With Evergreen notes and dense associative structure (see Evergreen notes should be densely linked), our ideas are collected and distilled continuously. Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate, so there’s less need for brainstorming because those insights have already emerged—and captured in an ongoing fashion—in one’s day-to-day work.
Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.
As proper note-taking is rarely taught or discussed, it is no wonder that almost every guide on writing recommends to start with brainstorming. If you haven’t written along the way, the brain is indeed the only place to turn to. On its own, it is not such a great choice: it is neither objective nor reliable – two quite important aspects in academic or nonfiction writing. The promotion of brainstorming as a starting point is all the more surprising as it is not the origin of most ideas: The things you are supposed to find in your head by brainstorming usually don’t have their origins in there.
Many students and academic writers think like the early ship owners when it comes to note-taking. They handle their ideas and findings in the way it makes immediate sense: If they read an interesting sentence, they underline it. If they have a comment to make, they write it into the margins. If they have an idea, they write it into their notebook, and if an article seems important enough, they make the effort and write an excerpt. Working like this will leave you with a lot of different notes in many different places. Writing, then, means to rely heavily on your brain to remember where and when these notes were written down. A text must then be conceptualised independently from these notes, which explains why so many resort to brainstorming to arrange the resources afterwards according to this preconceived idea.