For many writers, the most challenging aspect of writing a paper is coming up with a good, workable, compelling idea. Often teachers assign papers that are "wide open" - that is, writers know that they must produce something on Heart of Darkness, but they have no idea what it is that they are going to say. Indeed, some writers are still in process of figuring out what it is that Conrad is saying. They sit before the book, dumfounded. Are they really expected to write a paper on this mysterious, elusive text?

The great thing about tutoring is that while coming up with an idea is frustrating for the writers, it is exhilarating for tutors. There is no better aspect to tutoring than talking a writer towards his idea. Sometimes, all the tutor needs to do is to engage the writer in conversation and presto! The idea emerges. In other cases, writers require a more formalized approach to the invention process - something concrete that they can take with them to their dorms and use in future writing situations. Accordingly, we offer some formal (and informal) invention strategies that have withstood the test of time.

Five W's and an H

Teachers from Socrates to your high school English teachers have championed perhaps the simplest and most familiar way of coming up with a topic: ask questions. Journalism has taught us that these questions might be very simple: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Answering these questions initially doesn't seem very hard - at least, until one gets to the why and how. Then it gets tricky. The relationship between Marlow and Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is, a writer thinks, like Marlow's relationship to Jim in Lord Jim. How? Well, in some ways Jim is like Kurtz. OK. But how is he like Kurtz? And why does Conrad draw that parallel? To answer all of these "why's" becomes increasingly difficult. After all, one can ask "Why?" until the cows come home.

However, it is precisely when the writer has difficulty answering a "why" that a real paper is beginning. When the answer comes too easily, the writer is on familiar ground; he is probably not saying anything that interests him or his professor. It is only at the point where the writer is legitimately confused that real thinking - and real writing - begins. Consider the following conversation between a student writer and tutor. Note that the more flustered the writer is, the closer he is to a good idea.

  • "I don't like Heart of Darkness."
  • "Why not?"
  • "Because it's a racist book."
  • "Why do you say that?"
  • "Because it presents stereotypes of Africans that are clearly wrong."
  • "What stereotypes are you referring to?"
  • "Well, there's that scene where they're in the woods."
  • "What about that scene?"
  • "It's disturbing. They call the natives ants."
  • "Where? Can you show me?"
  • "Here ... Oh. Well, he doesn't call them ants here, but this is the scene. Look at this ..."
  • "What do you think Conrad is doing?"
  • "I think he's saying that the natives are inhuman... No, wait... He's saying that the whites see them as inhuman... It's hard to determine what he's doing."
  • "Interesting. Why do you think it's hard to determine what Conrad is saying about race?"

The tutor is giving the writer an opportunity to answer, and is waiting for the light bulb to appear over the writer's head. If the light bulb stays unlit, the tutor will ask more questions until the writer has a lead on his topic. Note how the tutor has used this method to get the writer to go back and look at the text. His paper will be more thoroughly considered than it would have been had he not used the five W's and an H.


Brainstorming is a less formal strategy for invention, one in which a writer jots down, as quickly as he can, notes or fragments of notes concerning his topic. The notes can be general or specific; it depends on how far along the writer is in the writing process. The point is to get the writer to explore freely his topic, without the pressure of structure, grammar, or style.

When you encounter a writer who lacks a good topic for a paper, try brainstorming together. In these instances, brainstorming is like a good game of catch: the two of you throw ideas back and forth, one to the other. Sometimes you should act as a stenographer for the writer, jotting down ideas as quickly as he can come up with them. Other times it's a good idea to let the writer do the jotting and doodling. Have fun when brainstorming with your tutees; encourage them to give voice to all - even the silliest - of their ideas. Sometimes these ideas lead to very interesting arguments.


Sometimes writers have lots of ideas but don't know how to focus them into a cohesive whole. In other words, they have lots of information, lots of thoughts, but they don't yet know exactly what their argument is. Nutshelling can help these writers.

Nutshelling is the simple process of trying to explain the argument to someone in a few sentences - that is, in a nutshell. When a writer tries to put her thoughts in a nutshell, she comes to see just how her thoughts fit together, how each thought is relevant to the others, what the overall "point" of her thoughts is. In short, the writer is involved in the process of making meaning out of information - a process absolutely essential to the writing process.

You can help writers to nutshell simply by asking them, perhaps even before you read their paper, what it is that they are trying to say. For example, say a student is doing a paper on the writing process. He has a lot to say about inventive ways for structuring paragraphs, sentences, and the paper as a whole. He tells you that he thinks that the five-paragraph model stinks, and that it doesn't prepare you for college writing. But, when you ask him, in a nutshell, to tell you what he wants to argue, it turns out that he wants to argue that teachers contradict themselves when they teach you to use the five-paragraph theme, but also to experiment with ideas. This is a fresh observation. What started out as a bunch of loosely related observations, written in no particular order, now has a an argument that can encompass his observations and organize them.

Aristotle's Topoi

In Aristotle's day, rhetoric was a formalized system for expressing one's views. By "formalized," I mean that Aristotle defined very specific systems and structures that a writer or an orator was to follow as he developed his argument. These systems included ways of coming up with an argument as well as options for that argument's structure. We are concerned here with what Aristotle called the topoi - that is, a system of specific strategies for exploring ideas and coming up with an argument. (For an example of how the topoi can be used to develop an argument or to focus a topic, see Aristotle's Topoi on our Student site.)


Tagmemics is another simple strategy for invention that unfortunately bears a fancy name. Tagmemics is a system that allows a writer to look at a single object from three different perspectives. The hope is that one of these perspectives (or even all three) can help determine a subject for writing. Tagmemics involves seeing your topic:

  1. As a particle (as a thing in itself)
  2. As a wave (as a thing changing over time)
  3. As part of a field (as a thing in its context)

Say the writer wants to do a paper on Kurtz's and Marlow's relationship in Heart of Darkness. You can assist this, using tagmemics, by asking him questions such as:

  • What are the characteristics of your topic? In other words, what are the particulars of the relationship between Kurtz and Marlow? Does the writer see some quality in this relationship that hasn't been commonly acknowledged or adequately explored?
  • Have these characteristics changed over time? Ask the writer to consider how the relationship between Kurtz and Marlow develops in the novel. What changes occur? Also encourage the writer to look beyond the novel: Has our culture's attitudes towards this relationship changed over time? Finally, ask the writer to consider her own response to the characters and their relationship. Has this response changed over time? After all, a writer may re-evaluate Marlow and Kurtz several times before her reading of Heart of Darkness is complete. Have her consider exactly how and why her feelings change. Perhaps she will find a paper there.
  • Finally, consider the topic in context. How does the topic relate to other topics, both those clearly related and those which do not initially seem related at all? In other words, does Kurtz's and Marlow's relationship reveal anything about the larger themes of the novel? Is Kurtz's and Marlow's relationship symbolic of some cultural phenomena? How is this relationship like or unlike the relationship between Marlow and Jim in Lord Jim? How is it like or unlike the relationships in other Conrad novels? In other novels of the same period? Answering any of these questions could create an intriguing argument.

The Discovery Draft

When James McCrimmon discussed writing as a way of knowing, as opposed to writing as a way of telling, he meant that often we learn what it is we have to say through the actual process of writing. Think about it: how many times have you been in the middle of a paper, stopped suddenly, and said, like the ladies in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "But that isn't what I meant at all. That isn't it at all." You hit the delete button, and you begin again - this time with a completely new idea in hand.

Most student writers don't think of writing as a way of discovering what it is they want to say. On the contrary, they believe that they need to know precisely what it is they want to say before they begin to write, that writing should reflect a thinking process that is more or less complete. After all, they read only the finished works of Hemingway or Shakespeare in high school. Teachers praised these works as brilliant, and it is more than likely that the teachers never addressed the writer's process: the endless drafts, the many choices, the discovering mid-way through that Hamletcould do a great graveyard scene.

Imagine the despair when students began to write their own essays on Hamlet: their sentences didn't come out anywhere near as good as Shakespeare's. Moreover, they didn't learn anything when writing the paper and so were incredibly bored by it. In turn, they wrote something that bored the teacher, too.

Discovery drafts can help writers overcome these problems. Discovery drafts are like directed freewriting: students write freely, without attention to structure or grammar. The purpose is to explore ideas. The writers should feel free to stop in mid-sentence if an idea comes into their heads; they should also feel free to pursue ideas that initially seem silly or irrelevant. Who knows? In this silliness or irrelevance may be the gem of a truly inspired essay.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the discovery draft is that it is meant to be a dialogue: writers can pretend to be talking to themselves, to you, or to their teachers in such a draft. In such "talk," ideas emerge. Questions are raised, hypotheses formed, theories yielded. Though some student writers will be reluctant to add a step to their writing processes, suggest it to them anyway. Discovery drafts are enormously useful to the writing process in that 1) they give writers practice in giving language to their ideas, and 2) they teach them how to write their way through a problem.

A Few Words on Writer's Block

Perhaps nothing is more terrifying to a writer than a case of writer's block. Different writers "block' differently. Some block when they are trying to come up with a topic; other's block when they sit down to write a first draft; still others are fine when they work on the body of the paper but get stuck on introductions and conclusions. What advice can you give these writers?

To begin, coming to see a tutor is itself a great way to overcome writer's block. Sometimes talk is the best medicine. After all, a few well-placed questions can turn a light on in a writer's head, helping him to see his paper in new ways. If it's late, and RWIT isn't open, student writers can look for a roommate or some other friend with whom she can talk about the paper.

One good way to deal with a writer's block is to ask how she has overcome these problems in the past. Certainly she's finished papers in her academic career. What strategies did she employ? If they worked before, they'll work again. You might also offer strategies of your own: all of us have had writer's block and have overcome it. Sometimes a short walk or any sort of diversion is enough to get a writer going again. Or send a writer back to the books: reading can often inspire a new idea that liberates the writer from her block. You might also instruct the writer to back up a step or two in her process. Sometimes, what's stopping the writer is that something is wrong with the paper's structure or logic. Taking a moment to nutshell or to outline (again) sometimes shows the writer what's wrong with the paper and gets her back on track.

If writer's block is chronic - that is, if it happens every time a person sits down to write - instruct the writer to think about her writing process. At what point in the writing process does she find herself blocked? Why does she think these blocks occur? Does she lose confidence in her knowledge of the subject? If so, ask her if she thinks she's done adequate reading and research. If she feels that she has, then perhaps her block comes from a lack confidence. If not, perhaps she needs to prepare more carefully before she sits down to write.

Writer's block can also be affected by a writer's environment. Ask questions. When does the writer work on her papers: early in the evening, when she still has energy, or late at night, when all she wants to do is sleep? And where does she work? In a comfortable, orderly spot, or in dorm room that is noisy and cluttered? If environment doesn't seem to be the problem, ask the writer some questions about her overall ability to concentrate. It may be that she has some unrelated problem that is impairing her ability to concentrate. It may also be that she has some sort of learning disability. You should never suggest to a student that she has a learning disability. If she raises this concern herself, send her to see Carl Thum in Academic Skills.  If you have concerns about a student, talk with the Interim Director of Student Support Services, Nick Van Kley.