Clustering Ideas

Lesson Content

Inquire: Building a Road Map with Words


If you look at a road map, you can see that from each city, multiple roads lead off in different directions, each heading toward a new destination that itself is a convergence of more roads. But, what do the images of a road map actually help us do? They help us orient and find our way, of course. Of equal importance, they also show the relationships between each of these destinations in terms of distance and direction.

Clustering is a writing technique that offers a similar means of mapping the relationships between ideas, instead of driving destinations. This free-associative exercise uses words and basic concepts to build “idea maps” that will help you start thinking about the relationships between different concepts so that you can build a well-developed and focused project.

Big Question

How can I visualize the connections between basic words and ideas?

Read: How Clustering Works

Overview: Building a Web

DecorativeClustering is an exercise that fosters thinking about the concepts associated with your topic, and the relationships between those concepts. This technique allows you to create a web of interconnected words – a visual representation of the connections – that will help you skillfully articulate the points you want to make, draft an outline for your paper, and ultimately craft well-developed arguments. You don’t necessarily need to have an idea in mind to start a cluster, either. So long as you are able to identify one word associated with the subject you are writing about, which could even be the subject itself, you can build a cluster by simply expanding your thoughts out from that word. While it may seem like all that you are ending up with is a confusing mess of words and lines, the goal here is not a neat, finished product, but more like a general road map that will help you get started on your project.

Write Your Words

Start with a word central to a topic or subject you are interested in exploring. If you use more than one word, try to keep your idea as simple and contained as possible. Write that word, or words, in the center of a piece of paper, then draw a circle around it. For example, if you are wanting to explore libraries in the modern world, you might write “libraries” in the center of your page, and then circle that. Now, start writing words that come to mind in association with your keyword(s). In the case of our example, you might write “books,” “computers,” and “librarians.” Circle each of these as you write them, then draw a line from each of these circles to your keyword(s) in the center. Now work your way around to each of these secondary words, and write words you associate with each of these. Again, circle these words and draw lines connecting them to each concept to which they relate. As you work outward, you should see a loose web-like collection of words with lines connecting them start to appear. Some words may have more links to them than others. These grouped connections are your clusters.

Build Relationships

Each word can have multiple relationships across your cluster, so be sure to look out for words that may have multiple connections, but don’t get too caught up with trying to find these connections. Rather, keep writing words that come to mind in connection with other words. Even if they seem unnecessary or inappropriate for your paper, the more words you have to make connections with, the more developed the relationships between words and concepts will be. These relationships will help you build a web of words or concepts that are interrelated. By examining these relationships, you can develop arguments or ideas that are supported by diverse, interlocking topics.

Don’t Limit Yourself

DecorativeYou also don’t necessarily need to limit your branching to the original word that you used to start the cluster. As you work outward, you may find that you are building more relationships around a different word than the one you started with. You may even have multiple clusters that start appearing around different words. This is good. Keep going, and see how many words you can add to any of these clusters. Again, the point here is idea generation, so the more ideas that you are able to develop, the more benefit you will derive from the clustering exercise.

Examine Clusters

Once you have filled your paper, examine the places where multiple words are grouped together and connected by lines. Think about the relationships between these words. How are they connected? What ideas come to mind when you see these interrelated words together? Remember, relationships are key. Record these ideas and think about how you can develop them into comprehensive analyses or arguments. Do this for all the groupings you can find in your cluster. From this mapping, you should be able to find at least a few major ideas to help you get started on a larger project.

Reflect: The Physical Limits of a Map of Ideas


Clustering works best when the limits placed upon your creativity are kept to a minimum. This includes the physical restrictions of writing space and time. Think for a minute about the act of writing and what you use to complete it: pencils, paper, etc. What do you think might be the best way to optimize your experience?

Expand: Clustering with Others

Overview: Talking Out a Cluster

So far, we’ve discussed clustering as an individual exercise to help with writing papers. This strategy can also be used if you are working with others on a larger project, or if you are all working on a similar subject. There are a couple of ways that the basic idea of clustering can be expanded to optimally cultivate collective idea sharing among a group. Simply talking through a cluster can be a fine way of accomplishing this, however, idea circles can help give a group a more structured way of building clusters.

Idea Circles

DecorativeRather than having everyone in a group shouting out ideas all at once, you can create an idea circle. With this variant on clustering, the group will collectively select one word to begin the cluster. Then, in a predetermined order, each member of the group will add one word at a time, connecting each word to a different one in the cluster.

This can go on for a while, but it works best if there is a time limit involved – 10 to 15 minutes, usually – or a set number of words each member of the group can contribute. You can use different colored pens or pencils if you would like, so that you can keep track of who has already contributed. It’s important to move quickly from each group member to the next, with everyone writing a word as soon as it is their turn. Remember, just as in the individual version of this exercise, there should be no restrictions on what is written. The key here is generating ideas, not critiquing them.

Once this is complete, each member can discuss the relationships that they noticed in the cluster and talk about the larger ideas that occurred to them. Each person doesn’t necessarily need to focus on ideas generated only from words they contributed. Any ideas are helpful, so each person should be encouraged to discuss whatever ideas they have related to the cluster exercise and any of the words or relationships that it unveiled.

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

Writing Center at the University of Richmond

A general overview of clustering, as well as a good example of what a cluster will look like

Lesson Glossary


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  • clustering
    a free-associative, brainstorming exercise that involves drawing an idea map using words and basic concepts. This technique is used to get started with writing based on associations and listing
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Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Matt Huigens for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA

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