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How do you narrow a general topic down to a specific thesis that you can explore or defend? Where do you even start?

Brainstorming Techniques
Stasis Theory
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One technique is to make at least two lists: one of what you know about your topic, and one of what you want to know about your topic. Here are some questions to answer as you write a list of things you know:

  • Why is this a topic you want to write about it?
  • Is what you know about the topic positive or negative?
  • Is your background knowledge based on facts or hearsay?
Diagram for brainstorm: image showing silhouette of a person's head with a cartoon brain with lightning and clouds simulating a storm, with wind graphics leading to clipboards with different brainstorming maps.

For the list of things you want to know, consider the following questions:

  • Where do I go to find out more about the subject?
  • What are all the points of view on this subject?
  • What do people who don’t agree with me say about this subject?
  • What will my audience know about this subject? How much will I have to tell them? Do I know what they need to know?

These questions can seem overwhelming, but remember, the point of brainstorming is to have as many thoughts about your subject as you can so that you can start writing. You never know what perspective will help you narrow things down.

Concept Maps

Concept maps can be useful for people who like visual aids. Start by identifying some main points about your topic and use the concept map to organize sub-points. Having everything laid out in front of you can then help you identify connections, which can show you where you need more evidence or where you may need to address a counterargument.

Watch this video for a quick overview of concept maps: How to Create a Concept Map (2:00)

Write out a draft

Sometimes the best way to organize your thoughts is to get them all down on paper. Try writing down everything you know about your topic as if you were writing the first draft. You don’t have to worry too much about in-text quotations and official citations—it’s just the pre-first draft. But once you write out everything you know, not only can you see the gaps in your knowledge, but you also may have a better idea of how you want to organize your actual essay. Once you have everything down on paper, it could be as simple (though maybe not easy) as rewriting and revising your initial thoughts.

Talk it out!

Some people are better talkers than they are first-drafters. Talking is an excellent way to define and process your personal thoughts. Discussion can also help point out counterarguments that you might not have considered before. Ask someone to help you brainstorm—it can be fun for both parties! (And helpful for you.)

Stasis Theory

You can check out our other landing page on stasis theory, but we should probably talk about stasis theory as part of the brainstorming process, too. Stasis theory goes back to Greek rhetoric (Hermagoras), and it’s a method for determining “the question is stasis,” the heart of an argument, or where the moment of disagreement lies between two or more parties. Stasis theory is also a great way to understand how our criminal justice system investigates a crime, or why political parties are often at odds with each other over legislation and public policy (the answer: they sometimes don’t agree on the question at stasis, meaning, one party wants to discuss how to fix a problem that the other party doesn’t quite see as a problem in the first place).

In a nutshell, stasis theory is much like the journalistic questions in that you ask four specific questions to try to figure out what needs to be researched or argued, or where others are stuck in their disagreements, so it’s a great way to brainstorm new topics, angles, or avenues for research.

The four stasis questions are:

  • Fact: does the issue we’re thinking about exist? In criminal justice theory, the question of fact revolves around whether a crime was committed–when the investigator comes to a crime scene, one of the first questions they ask is, did a crime happen?

  • Definition: the next step is to try to understand where the issue comes from, or what kind of crime was committed. Definition always refers to how we define, or view, the issue at hand–what do we call it? How do we understand it? Where did it start? Where did it come from?

  • Quality: simply put, quality references the importance of the issue. How much does the issue really matter, anyway? How egregious of a crime was it (a felony? a misdemeanor?)

  • Procedure: lastly, procedure asks us to consider our next steps. What are we going to do about the issue? How are we going to move our investigation forward? What more do we need to research?

Use stasis theory while you brainstorm arguments, or use it to figure out where you’ll need to do more research as you’re starting your research projects.

Short Overview


Deep Dive in Brainstorming

Brainstorming long video.mp4

Are you ready to talk to a writing consultant about brainstorming? Here are some questions to consider before you come to the center:

  1. What is my topic?
  2. What do I know about my topic?
  3. What do I need to know about my topic?
  4. Who is in my audience?
  5. What will my audience know or not know about my topic?
  6. How much evidence to I need to have?