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Learn When to Gather Information
Learn How to Gather Information
Use Five Methods to Record What You Already Know
Using Focused Free Writing
Brainstorming: Asking The Journalist's Questions
Drawing a Subject Tree
Gather More Information if Needed

Writing is a process of four important steps: gathering information is the first and perhaps the most important. The others are drafting, editing, and proofreading. Following the process carefully is the best way to produce a piece of writing you can be proud of.


Gathering information (facts, ideas, opinions, statistics, quotations) means recording what you know about your subject from personal experience or from other sources. You can use a journal, notebook, note cards, or a sheet of a paper for this purpose. You will most often gather information at the beginning of a project, but you might need to gather more information later in the process.


This objective presents seven good ways to gather information: listing, focused freewriting, brainstorming, clustering, drawing a subject tree, summarizing, and interviewing.

Listing , focused freewriting, brainstorming, clustering, and drawing a subject tree allow you to record information that you already know, that you have observed, or that you have learned from experience.

Summarizing and interviewing are ways to gather information about a subject from what others have said or written about it.


Always begin by writing down what you have learned about your subject through observation or experience. This technique will help you gain confidence and overcome "writer's block," the common problem of staring at a blank paper without knowing how to begin.

As you just learned, some ways to gather information you already know are (1) listing, (2) focused freewriting, (3) brainstorming, (4) clustering, and (5) drawing a subject tree..


Listing is a quick way to record what you think is most important, startling, or obvious about your subject. Start by recording three or four broad details that come to mind as you first think about the subject. Here's how you might begin if you decide to describe what you saw, heard, and felt after a serious auto accident:

My car, a lump of twisted steel
Sound of metal, glass breaking
Don't worry about grammar and mechanical errors at this time. You can correct them later, when you draft, revise, or edit your work.


Rough lists like the one you just saw need not be precise or complete; their only purpose is to help you begin thinking about your subject. You can provide the exact details as you review each item and expand it.

You might expand Fear by writing:

Thought I broke my leg
Was car about to explode?
Parents' reactions?
Police sirens, ambulance lights flashing
Was my brother still in the wreck?

Expanding a List

By expanding other items in your original list, you can add more details until you have enough information to begin the first draft of a paper about this event. Here's how you might add details to another item in your original list:

Forgot where I was
Felt like throwing up
Head spinning, balance off
Tripped over a curb, landed on high, wet grass

Don't worry about grammar and mechanical errors at this time. You can correct them later, when you draft, revise, or edit your work.

Here's an example of details you might add to still another item in your original list:

Sharp stabbing pain in legs, arms
Bruises on arms, knees, and chest
What about my leg? Was it still there?

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Always review your list after you think you have run out of things to say. This step will help you add new details and clarify those you've already included. For example, after rereading your original list, you might expand "Worried What about my leg?" to


My right leg had gone numb. For a moment I panicked and began to fear that I had lost it.

When you create a list, you can use words, phrases, complete sentences, complete sentences, or a combination of all three.


A second way to gather facts and ideas you already know is through freewriting. Freewriting involves writing nonstop for 5 or 10 minutes by recording information just as it pops into your mind. Focused freewriting requires you to concentrate on a chosen subject as you go along. Information gathered through focused freewriting is recorded in loosely constructed sentences and paragraphs. Here's an example of what you might have written if you had used focused freewriting to gather details about a car wreck:


I was disoreented, didn't remember where I was going.Felt like vommiting. For a minute, I had trouble keeping my balance, my head spining and I triped over the curb and fell on some wet grass Was car about to exlode? Had I broken my leg? I thought about my parents, their reactions to all this.

Don't worry about grammar and mechanical errors at this time. You can correct them later, when you draft, revise, or edit your work.

Here's more focused freewriting like the kind you might have completed to gather details about a car wreck:


What happened? The police came. Heard their sirens screeching and the ambulance arrive--remembered brother. Was he out of the car? Where was he? How did I get here. Where is here? My legs and arms hurt--sharp, stabbin pains--head pounds. The Camaro was sandwiched between the light pole and the car that I hit (that hit me?) I became really worried about my leg. My head hurt badly, the bruises on my face and elbows burned, and my head pounded. No feeling in my leg. Is it there? Gas. three of the wheels are off the ground and spinning.


Don't worry about grammar and mechanical errors at this time. You can correct them later, when you draft, revise, or edit your work.

Here's still more focused freewriting like the kind you might have completed to gather details about a car wreck:


Glass tears through my coat an rips into my forarm. Gas stinks. There's glass across the street, gasoline leaking everywhere, antifreeze Will this car explode? The crunch of steel and the two loud thuds still echo in my head.


Don't worry about grammar and mechanical errors at this time. You can correct them later, when you draft, revise, or edit your work.



Unlike most other ways to gather information, brainstorming usually results in a collection of words and phrases randomly scribbled across a page. In addition, brainstorming is done with friends or classmates. Using this method, a small group can come up with a greater number of interesting questions and answers about a topic than can someone working alone.

You can begin brainstorming in a variety of ways. One of the most effective is to ask the journalist's questions. Reporters ask the following questions when they plan their stories.

What happened?
Who was involved?
When and Where did it take place?
How did it happen?
Why is this event important?

(An easy way to remember the six questions journalists use is to think of them as the 5Ws and the H.). Questions like these work best if you want to tell a story or explain how or why something happens or should happen. However, you will probably have to think of different questions if you have other purposes in mind. Say you want to describe your Uncle Charlie. You might ask these questions: What does he look like? How old is he? Who are his friends? Where does he live? and What kind of job does he have? In any case, remember that prewriting is also called "invention," so be creative and invent as many kinds of questions as you like.

Not all the questions you ask will yield useful information. However, the answers to only one or two might suggest ideas and details to other members of your brainstorming group. In a little while, a mental chain reaction will occur, and you will find yourself discussing ideas, facts, and opinions that seem to pop up naturally. Working together, then, you will inspire each other to produce information for a fine journal entry and even for a longer piece of writing based on that entry.


A good way to settle on a manageable topic and to gather information is to draw a subject tree. Start with a broad subject. Then divide it into two or three subheadings or "branches." Next, subdivide each branch. Continue this process until you feel comfortable that your topic is limited enough and that you have enough information to begin writing an outline and/or a rough draft of your paper. Here's an example that begins with "uses of the computer" as a general subject.

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Uses of a Computer
IndustryBusiness/Professions Education
ManufacturingWriting For Students


Business Writing Writing papers

Quality Control


Completing math/ science problems

Record KeepingManuals Doing library Research on campus or from home
Personnel Files Accounting Using the Internet
Inventory ControlSales Tax Files

Taking distance-learning courses

Accounts Payable/Receivable
For Teachers
Keeping current

Designing aids to instruction

Grading tests
Maintaining student records

As you create a subject tree, you will almost naturally put down more details and ideas under subheadings with which you are most familiar or in which you have the greatest interest. For example, the writer who created the subject tree for "uses of computers" would probably feel most comfortable writing about ways in which computers help both students and teachers.


Clustering helps you turn a broad subject into a limited and more manageable topic for a short essay. Clustering is also called mapping or webbing.

Like focused freewriting, clustering uses free association. To begin, write a word or phrase that states a general subject in the middle of a blank piece of paper. Circle that word or phrase. Then think of ideas, phrases, and details related to it. Write down whatever pops into your mind. Say your subject is aerobicexercise; that's a fairly general subject. So you list some more specific headings such as running, swimming, aerobic dancing, health benefits, toning, and weight loss. If you arrange these items in a circle around your subject, you will probably create a diagram that looks like this:

<a onClick="'/olcweb/cgi/pluginpop.cgi?it=gif::::/sites/dl/free/1259024717/254534/aerobic.gif','popWin', 'width=NaN,height=NaN,resizable,scrollbars');" href="#"><img valign="absmiddle" height="16" width="16" border="0" src="/olcweb/styles/shared/linkicons/image.gif"> (6.0K)</a>

The next thing to do is to write down ideas and details related to each heading, continuing until you have run out of material to put down.

<a onClick="'/olcweb/cgi/pluginpop.cgi?it=gif::aerobic3 Image for Catalyst::/sites/dl/free/1259024717/295590/aerobic3.gif','popWin', 'width=NaN,height=NaN,resizable,scrollbars');" href="#"><img valign="absmiddle" height="16" width="16" border="0" src="/olcweb/styles/shared/linkicons/image.gif">aerobic3 Image for Catalyst (10.0K)</a>aerobic3 Image for Catalyst

As you continue adding ideas and circles, you will notice that you seem to be paying more attention to one particular heading than to others. In the diagram above, more information is clustered around the "health benefits" associated with aerobic exercise than around other headings. Thus clustering has helped you focus on the one aspect of your subject that you seem to know most about or that you have the greatest interest in.

It has also allowed you to organize your ideas better. In the original diagram, for example, "weight loss" appeared in its own heading. However, as you continued working, you realized that "weight loss" is simply one of several "health benefits" you might discuss. Therefore, you decided to place—cluster—it with that broader heading.

After you decide that you really want to talk about the "health benefits" of aerobic exercises, you can continue gathering additional, more specific information through clustering or through one of the other techniques discussed above. When you are ready to outline your paper, a skill discussed in Chapter 4, you can begin by reviewing your notes and then deciding on the points you want to cover in each paragraph or section of your paper. In that way, you can adopt an organizational pattern drawn from your notes. If you were using the cluster above, for example, your preliminary or scratch outline might look like this:

Health Benefits of Aerobic Exercise

  • Physical well-being
  • Emotional well-being
  • Weight loss


After recording what you know about a subject through listing, focused freewriting, brainstorming, and drawing a subject tree, you might find that you need even more information. Two ways to gather this material are summarizing what others have written about your subject and interviewing people who know a lot about it.


Summarizing is a way to put another writer's ideas into your own words. A summary is shorter and more compact than the original; it includes only major points.

Compare a paragraph from Thomas Cahill's book, TheGiftsoftheJews, with a student's summary of it:


Somewhat more than five millennia ago, a human hand first carved a written word, and so initiated history, mankind's recorded story. This happened in Sumer, probably in a warehouse of Uruk, perhaps the earliest human habitation to deserve the name of "city," massed along the Euphrates River in ancient Mesopotamia—modern Warka in present-day Iraq. The written word was an invention born of necessity: how else were the Sumerians to keep their accounts straight? 


According to Thomas Cahill, written language, which made the study of history possible, was born over 5000 years ago when Sumerians living in a Euphrates River settlement—in what is today Iraq—began to keep commercial records.

Including summarized information

You can combine summarized information with what you already know or with details from other sources. Just use your own words. Also, make sure the reader knows that the information comes from someone else''s work by giving that writer credit. For example, the student summary of the passage from TheGiftsoftheJews begins: "According to Thomas Cahill . . . ."


Interviewing is a good way to gather details from people who are at least as familiar with your subject as you are. It also enables you to view your subject from another perspective.

Interviewing Tips

  1. Prepare for your interview carefully. Think of questions that will draw useful information from the person(s) you're interviewing.
  2. Ask questions like those used by journalists: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?
  3. Schedule interviews ahead of time and announce your subject when you make an appointment.
  4. Consider giving the person you are interviewing a written copy of the questions you will ask so that he or she can prepare for the interview and make it more worthwhile.

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