We share some very good techniques for brainstorming at the Writing Center. But creating ideas in a vacuum doesn’t work for me, and, sadly, my brainstorms never quite match the texts I’m writing about. So I worked out a different process.
First, I start a notes document; this is separate from the essay itself. It’s just a table with two columns: a thin one for page numbers, and a wide one for text. Then I go through the texts. When I find a quote that’s relevant, it goes into the table in quote marks; a paraphrase goes in curly braces.
The text sparks my own ideas, often one for every quotation or paraphrase. My ideas go in square brackets, mixed in with the quotes and paraphrases. And when I’m done, the notes document contains almost all of the ideas I need for the paper, and all of the supporting evidence.
At this point I start moving ideas over to the actual paper, making a rough outline as I go. I mess with it until I’ve got the flow of the paper, then fill in the blanks between the ideas, copy and paste quotations and paraphrases, and revise it for a few days.
Cautionary note: you end up with a wealth of citations, and it’s tempting to use too many of them, which clutters the paper. Choose wisely.