Too Many Ideas, but a Few Words (By Melika Shirmohammadi, P.O.W.E.R. Consultant)

Too Many Ideas, but a Few Words

By: Melika Shirmohammadi, P.O.W.E.R. Consultant


About one year ago, if you happened to see me on the campus bus scrolling up and down on my iPhone screen, you may have thought, “she is on Facebook”. That was not true. I may have been searching the library’s website looking for an article, or surfing Google Scholar in search of a literature review, or exploring other web resources in the hunt for data. Yes! That was me - at 8 PM, on a Friday night, on the campus bus, searching for scholarly stuff!

When I started my doctoral program, my mind was preoccupied with the urge of finding a topic for my dissertation. From the very first days of graduate school and even before that, I knew I had to find a dissertation topic for myself; a topic that I am passionate about that was  intellectual, brilliant, of significance, and practical. I couldn't concentrate on the coursework because I was thinking day and night to find a perfect research topic. My mind would generate topic after topic as I read my class readings. I used to search to know more about the topics that came to my mind. I would start with a simple Google search, then I would search books and articles, download and save them to “my dissertation topic” folder. I used “get it for me” for handbooks on the library services webpage, checked them out, carried them in my backpack for several days back and forth from home to office, as heavy as they were, with the hope of browsing them to see how I could frame the topic that had come to my mind. Even when I was running on the Treadmill in the Recreation Center, I would seek a Ted Talk or a YouTube video related to the topic on my mind.

Not only did I suffer from selecting a dissertation topic, but I was also overwhelmed with picking a topic for my class papers. For almost every course that I have had so far in my doctoral program, I wandered and spent several hours searching a perfect topic. I would come up with different topics and think about them. I would try hard to capture and organize my ideas; I would stick a blank paper next to my bed to capture ideas before I went to sleep and as soon as I woke up. I covered my refrigerator’s door with post-it-notes to think about the class paper topics while I was cooking. Then, I would start my vicious searching loop all over again on Google, Google Scholar, Library, Handbooks and etc.

Hopping from class readings to intense internet and library search never really helped me think clearly and identify the topic that stood out to me as my true research interest. Instead, despite all my efforts, I found myself topic-less, burned out, and frustrated after the second semester of my doctoral program.  What really helped me organize my ideas and make them clear to me were two POWER techniques Dr. Patricia Goodson taught us in writing for publication course during the spring of 2013. Below, I will share how I used these POWER strategies.

(1)       Journal keeping: write now and save it for later

“Those who write in a journal regularly are more creative and clearer thinkers, as well as more fluent writers.” (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 18)

To free my mind from various ideas, I started keeping a professional journal. Keeping a journal helps me capture and save my ideas all in one place. I carry my journal everywhere and write down any idea that arises. Since I am sure everything is saved in the journal, I am relaxed and can think with less pressure. I don’t feel anxious to go and search about all the ideas that cross my mind all at the same time. I give myself some time, and go back to my journal when I have time and look at the ideas with a fresh mind and then decide which one to choose.

The journal also enables me to think of ideas and topics in a completely different way. I save the topics that interest me in the journal for the future. I tell myself: "I don’t need to work on every topic that interests me now or as my dissertation topic. I can work on them after I graduate.” As a result, I don’t feel the rush to go and surf the web and spend my limited amount of time on digging resources to find a little more about a new topic. The journal stops me right there.

(2)       Freewriting: write now and revise later

“Freewriting is a useful outlet. We have lots in our heads that make it hard to think straight and write clearly…. Freewriting helps you to think of topics to write about. Just keep writing, follow threads where they lead, and you will get to ideas, experiences, feeling, or people that are just asking to be written about” (Elbow, 1998, p. 15).


Before I start to read or search about a topic or an idea, I only sit and write about it. I put no pressure on myself. I write as I think, I write without stopping to look at what I have written. I don’t judge, I don’t revise, I don’t look for references, I just write. I write whatever I know about the topic and as I write I ask myself simple questions: why am I interested in this topic, why is it important, who cares about it, who likes to read about it, what questions I like to ask about this topic. I save the file and leave it. Later, I go back to it and read it again. I will see how much or for what purpose I need to search and read further. For example, when the idea for this blog post came to my mind one night while I was standing on the bus holding up my hand on the hard rail, I came home and dumped all the words and ideas twirling around my mind. I didn’t stop to think; I just wrote. Later, I came back to it, followed the tread of one idea, and started editing and revising.

Through this journey, I have realized that my ideas need time to develop. They don’t come along instantly overnight and turn into the best class paper or dissertation topic. I collect the ideas in my journal and give them time to grow. I have also become conscious that my ideas become clear to myself as I generate words and write about them freely and without pressure. If you are someone like me, passionate about your doctoral studies with too many ideas but few words, you may also find keeping a journal and freewriting helpful as you move along.



Elbow, P. (1998). Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, New York: Oxford University Press.

Stevens, D. D., & Cooper, J. E., (2009). Journal Keeping: How to Use Reflective Writing for Learning, Teaching, Professional Insight, and Positive Change, Virginia: Stylus Publishing LLC.