Cubing: One-Person Brainstorming — a writing technique

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This is not an original idea. In fact, I remember learning this writing technique so long ago that I can’t give it proper attribution. I even Googled the term cubing in an effort to give credit where credit is due, with no luck.

A few of the places cubing has been discussed in actual print, rather than in just blog form: The Concise Guide to Writing, by Axelrod and Cooper,/St. Martin’s, 1993; The Practical Tutor, Meyer and Smith/Oxford UP, 1984;and, Writing, Cowan and Cowan/Wiley, 1980. Now that I’ve actually typed this, I believe I read the Cowan-and-Cowan textbook. That’s probably where I first heard about the writing technique. The Cowans probably didn’t create it, however, so ultimate credit will, alas, remain elusive.

I called this a “writing technique,” but it is more precise to call cubing a pre-writing or writing brainstorming technique. It’s a way of generating ideas and of tackling a subject from many different angles.

The idea of the Cube is just a way to visualize a thing, person, place or emotion that you are writing about. As a cube has six sides, this writing exercise includes six aspects that you keep in mind while you are writing. Since this is one-person brainstorming, you aren’t meant to spend more than 3-to-5 minutes on each aspect. When I have used this technique in the past, I often used a kitchen timer to keep it under five minutes. These days, I know that a full double-spaced page (about 250 words for me) is about right for each side of the cube. Individual results will vary depending on your altitude and the wattage of your microwave. Sorry, that was a cooking joke (and, as the man said, my cooking is a joke).

The prompts for each side of the cube are as follows:

  • Describe: If it’s a physical object or person, what are your first impressions? Use all of your senses as applicable. Sight, sound, texture, taste. What does it look like? Keep your observations in first-person here. You’ll compare and associate in just a bit.
  • Compare: See? I told you so. What is it like? And, the implication is that you’ll contrast it as well. What is it different from?
  • Associate: What does your subject matter make you think of? And these thoughts are quite subjective. We associate certain things with different stages of our lives, or you may associate an object with a special person. Go crazy with your associations. If ice cream tastes like burning to you, write that down. That was a Ralph Wiggum zen koan, by the way. I have discovered that my mind is quite fruitful when it comes to association. That is a sure sign of genius. Or perhaps insanity. I can’t be bothered to find out which.
  • Analyze: Take a longer, deeper look at the subject of your exercise. How is it constructed? Why does it exist? What caused it to happen?
  • Apply: How can it be used? What could it be used for? Can it be used to teach somebody something?
  • Argue: Are you for or against it? What are its pros and cons? Is it Good or Bad? Explain why you think so.

It is helpful to discipline yourself to write for a set time (or word count, in my case), because you can often surprise yourself by expressing some ideas that aren’t just floating on the surface. Or, to mix metaphors like a tempest in a china shop, getting past the low-hanging fruit for something possibly juicier on a higher branch. You may state all the obvious, even cliché, observations within a minute or two, but find something that intrigues you when forcing yourself to continue writing.

Once all of these things are committed to paper or screen, the idea is to go back and highlight those ideas that truly stand out to you, and then do further freewriting on these topics to further shape and hone them. In the end, when you write your piece, be it homework assignment, personal essay or blog, or work of fiction, your final product will look effortless, even though you’ve worked your butt off to get there.

In my opinion, that’s the best kind of writing.

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