Clustering is a type of pre-writing that allows a writer to explore many ideas as soon as they occur to them. Like brainstorming or free associating, clustering allows a writer to begin without clear ideas.
To begin to cluster, choose a word that is central to the assignment. For example, if a writer were writing a paper about the value of a college education, they might choose the word "expectations" and write that word in the middle of the sheet of paper. Circle "expectations," then write words all around it: words that occur to the writer as they think of "expectations." It's ok if many of these words at first seem to be random. Write quickly, circling each word, and group words around the central word. Connect the new words to previous ones with lines; when the writer feels they have exhausted a particular avenue of associations, they should go back to the central word and begin again.
For example, “no ideas” might lead the writer to consider "prewriting," which may in turn lead them to consider "cubing." They may then find themselves writing down words that compare the types of prewriting techniques that can help provoke ideas . The writer may end up asking questions such as "Why am I struggling with this paper? What techniques do I know of, or does the Writer’s Web have to help me?" Have fun with this exercise; even random questions can open avenues to explore"
Some words will take the writer nowhere; with other words they may discover that they have many related words about which to write. Random associations eventually become patterns of logic . After completing the clustering exercise above, a writer might realize their main difficulty is with writing anxiety, which in turn could lead them to techniques to help build the confidence they need to get started. Now the writer’s trouble has a focus, and they can find solutions moving forward. Later on, if they struggle with the structure of their paper once they start writing it, they might want to return to such bubbles as an outline, or a well written introduction.
Clustering does not take the place of a linear, traditional outline; but, as the example shows, it allows the writer to explore ideas before committing them to a particular order.
Checked & proofread, summer 2018, Griffin Myers, Writing Consultant