Invention includes everything that a student does before beginning to compose a paper. Of course, students don't stop inventing when they've begun to compose. And they are composing even as they invent. But for the sake of this conversation, we'll let the categories stand. We've classified invention into five activities: reading as a writer, generating ideas, organizing ideas, contextualizing ideas, and coming up with a working thesis. You may want to add to this list with activities of your own. In any case, we encourage you to design your course so that the various methods of invention are taught, discussed, and reflected on.
Reading as a writer. With many academic papers, invention begins with reading a text (here we use "text" broadly to include everything from books, to works of art, to results of scientific experiments, to cultural, social, and economic systems). Students sometimes read these texts passively, satisfying themselves with absorbing the information in front of them. Instead they need to read actively, raising questions or challenging the writer as they read. Instructors can help their students to read like writers by encouraging them to scribble up the margins of their books with questions and quibbles. Students should be encouraged to look for patterns. They might also note allusions that they don't understand (with the idea that they'll do a little research to enhance their understanding).
Generating Ideas. Seasoned writing instructors offer students several strategies for generating ideas. Some of these ideas—like using Aristotle's topoi—are time-tested. Others—like asking students to freewrite, or brainstorm, or write a discovery draft (a bit like freewriting, but with more focus)—are more informal and can be used not only to come up with a topic but also to nudge a student out of a writing funk. Perhaps the best way of helping students to generate ideas is through good old-fashioned dialogue. Asking questions—both in conference and in writing workshops—models for students a way of interrogating their ideas that will yield better papers. With practice, students will internalize these methods of inquiry and will apply them to all of their academic tasks.
Organizing Ideas. Students have several strategies to choose from when organizing their ideas. Some students draft formal outlines and follow them faithfully as they write. Others make informal outlines that they revise as they draft. Some students find that sketching a paper works best for them: they start by writing down a possible thesis and then filling the page with related ideas, drawing arrows to establish possible connections, and using circles or stars or checkmarks to determine which ideas should be prioritized. Some students look for umbrella ideas and try to cluster related ideas beneath them. Still others write short paragraphs to try to summarize their thinking. While students should be permitted to use the organizing strategies that work for them, sometimes young writers rely overmuch on one organizational strategy. If this strategy isn't working, they get stuck. At this point, you can enter the student's process and demonstrate how a different organizational strategy might be effective.
Contextualizing Ideas. Sometimes students don't have a good sense of where their argument fits in the ongoing academic conversation, and so they can't determine the point (or the structure) of their paper. Doing some research can help. Show your students how to contextualize their ideas. In a writing workshop or in a conference, select one of their ideas, and then ask: What is the history of this idea? What else has been said on this topic that is relevant to our discussion? How does it relate to other ideas that we've been discussing? What do the dissenting voices have to say? How might we answer them? Asking these kinds of questions not only moves students into the ongoing academic conversation, it also gives them a sense of how to craft an introduction, when it comes time to write one.
Coming Up With A Working Thesis. The last step in the invention process (and the first formal step of the composing process) is coming up with a working thesis (or thesis question). Advise students to post the thesis where they can see it as they write: this sentence, if well crafted, will help the writer to stay focused on the argument she is trying to make. Do let the student know that, at this stage, they have only a working thesis—most writers revise their theses as they go, in order to accommodate shifts in perspectives and new ideas.
For materials on invention and thesis development that you can share with your students see Coming Up With Your Topic and Developing Your Thesis.