"Thinking out loud" in itself seems to imply literally speaking it with your voice, whereas I'm trying to describe "thinking out loud" silently by writing out thoughts on paper to work through a problem.

  • Are you just writing words, or is it more of a drawing? For example a word web?
    – JJJ
    Commented May 13, 2018 at 20:52
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    Ah, good question! More writing words, not drawing. Commented May 13, 2018 at 20:56
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    You scribble down ideas on paper idioms.thefreedictionary.com/scribble+down
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 13, 2018 at 21:28
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    "Thinking it through on paper" or "thinking something through by writing" is the way some people talk to me about it; and they do talk about it.
    – Xanne
    Commented May 13, 2018 at 21:40
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    @MetaEd I couldn't disagree more. ;) I think the fact that such questions bring up so many suggestions and votes, and that the questioner ends up with a wide variety of feedback to choose from, shows good, positive community involvement. Commented May 15, 2018 at 17:47

12 Answers 12


Brainstorming or freewriting is a term used by scholars and authors.

From the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

When you freewrite, you let your thoughts flow as they will, putting pen to paper and writing down whatever comes into your mind.

  • @ibf ~ Good point, although irrelevant to the question. There are times when (writers especially) want to document their random thoughts, strange as that may seem.
    – Bread
    Commented May 13, 2018 at 21:15
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    Yep, I learned this term from my first ever composition college class.
    – MCMastery
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 5:39

I would say you are writing stream of consciousness. This makes it clear you're just writing whatever comes to your head.


Thinking out loud in English connotes that the person has not sufficiently formed the thought completely or thought the entire idea through, and so is merely processing the idea audibly without knowing its conclusion or validity. Doing something like this on paper (meaning writing it) might be referred to as "drafting" an idea or "sketching," or compiling notes. Additionally a "rough sketch" or a "rough draft" shows that the writing is not yet polished, edited, or completed.

  • Hmmm, drafting makes sense. Sketching seems to me like it would imply a rough drawing of a diagram or figure, though? Depending on context, of course. Commented May 13, 2018 at 20:57

Think it, jot it down TFD

to make a note of something


I keep reading your question and wanting to coin new phrases.

writing out loud
mind writing

But that doesn't help if you're looking for an already existing word or phrase.

I've come across several ideas that express thinking aids (such as mind mapping and the already-mentioned brainstorming), but they aren't necessarily related to putting words on paper (or doing so on your own). Also, if you are "free associating," your writing will not be constrained, but if you are actually "working out a problem" (something specific) it's likely that what you write will have some purpose or framework behind it.

An alternative is to use a qualifier with a different term: a handwritten brain dump:

the act or an instance of comprehensively and uncritically expressing and recording one's thoughts and ideas (as on a particular topic)


I would tend to say "doodling" for this, although this could be interpreted as meaning truly random pictures or patterns rather than text or ideas, so some extra words might be needed; for instance "I'm just doodling on some ideas here, Bob" would probably have the right sense.

I might even use "noodling" in a similar way -- strictly this would describe "thinking out loud" with a musical instrument, but in the right context ("noodling with a pen and paper", "noodling on the keyboard") would probably convey the correct meaning.


You might like listing, according to this page from the Colorado State University website:

"Listing is a brainstorming technique many people find useful. It means doing just what its name suggests -- listing possible topics and then sublists of things you could say about each topic. A list could consist of the main topic of regional dialects and then sublists would be regional dialects you know or have experienced. Additional sublists might be particular words of each of those dialects, things you have noticed about those dialects (i.e. New Yorkers speak fast), what you think those dialects sound like, etc."

It doesn't focus on the writing part, but it doesn't have the connotation of involving sounds either.

Attribution: Writing@CSU. "Definition of Listing." The Writing Studio. Accessed May 13, 2018. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/teaching/gentopic/pop4b.cfm.


spontaneous writing

In a review of a book Transforming Memories: Sharing Spontaneous Writing Using Loaded Words the Huffington Post writes

How does spontaneous writing work?

When we practiced spontaneous writing in our writing group, we would either put our finger on a random word in the dictionary, or with our eyes closed, select a photograph from a pile, or use some other technique to prompt our writing exercise. Then, we would just write about it for 10-20 minutes. Our intention was to be spontaneous—to start putting down our thoughts without any pre-determined intention. This approach has become very therapeutic when writing about challenging experiences and difficult memories.


How about 'Back of an envelope' ?

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    'back of envelope calculation' i know - is it applicable to other kinds of ruminations?
    – loonquawl
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 11:50
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    Supposedly, US President Abraham Lincoln wrote the short Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope.
    – Stan
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 12:35

I think that "putting your ideas to paper" is a standard phrase that's almost literally what you asked (replacing "thoughts" with "ideas").

There's also "putting your thoughts to paper" (search results skewed by "thoughts to paper" being a commercial name).


Journaling might fit, if the thinking is personal.

trans. To record in a journal.


1892 Idler May 461 His journaled impressions of America.

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    Good answer, but you needed a citation so I provided it for you.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 14:38

Forgive my non sequitur rambling here but wouldn't this simply be soliloquy on paper? Which is to say, if one were to ponder all the possible ideations of their mind, through keyboard or pen, it would nonetheless be monologue meant for audience and, ergo, a Shakespearian affect?

Forgive my soliloquy


Allow me to think out loud

Except that, classically, soliloquies were not always audible (to other characters) which, I think, might provide you the grey area you're looking for? I also very much agree with an earlier poster who suggested this as a prime opportunity to coin a new phrase...

I usually just warn that "this may be a bit non sequitur" and then ramble...

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