Prewriting Strategies

Learning Objectives

  • Describe and use prewriting strategies (such as journaling, mapping, questioning, sketching)

Before we start talking about prewriting, let’s take a look at the word itself. If we break it down, the prefix “pre” means “before” so we’re really discussing the writing that happens before the writing. What does this mean? Prewriting has no set structure or organization; it may be a collection of ideas that may or may not find themselves in your paper over time. Prewriting is also a great way to get past writer’s block—that period of time when you find you have no ideas or don’t know how to put your thoughts together. There is no right or wrong way to approach prewriting, but there are some strategies that can get you thinking. You already learned about brainstorming and freewriting, but there are other helpful techniques to get you started that include journaling, mapping, questioning, and sketching.


Many people write in personal journals (or online blogs). Writers not only record events in journals, but they also reflect and record thoughts, observations, questions, and feelings. They are safe spaces to record your experience of the world.

Use a journal to write about an experience you had, different reactions you have observed to the same situation, a current item in the news, an ethical problem at work, an incident with one of your children, a memorable childhood experience of your own, etc. Try to probe the why or how of the situation. In other words, try to not only record your thoughts but why you think you have them and how you arrived at this idea. You are thinking about your thinking in the prewriting phase.

Journals can help you develop ideas for writing. When you review your journal entries, you may find that you keep coming back to a particular topic wor that you’re really passionate about an issue. Those are the topics, then, about which you obviously have something to say. Those are the topics you might develop further in a piece of writing.

Try It

Here’s one sample journal entry. Read through it and look for ideas that the writer might develop further in a piece of writing:

The hot issue here has been rising gas prices. People in our town are mostly commuters who work in the state capitol and have to drive about 30 miles each way to and from work. One local gas station has been working with the gas company to establish a gas cooperative, where folks who joined would pay a bit less per gallon. I don’t know whether I like this idea – it’s like joining one of those stores where you have to pay to shop there. You’ve got to buy a lot to recoup your membership fee. I wonder if this is a ploy of the gas company????  Others were talking about starting a petition to the local commuter bus service, to add more routes and times, as the current service isn’t enough to address workers’ schedules and needs. Still others are talking about initiating a light rail system, but this is an alternative that will take a lot of years and won’t address the situation immediately. I remember the gas crunch a number of years ago and remember that we simply started to carpool. In the Washington, DC area, with its huge traffic problems and large number of commuters, carpooling is so accepted that there are designated parking and pickup places along the highway, and it’s apparently accepted for strangers to pull over, let those waiting know where they’re headed, and offer rides. I’m not certain I’d go that far . . .

Mapping Strategy

Mapping or diagramming is similar to freewriting, but the outcome often looks more like a list of related ideas. This strategy is quite similar to brainstorming where the listed ideas may or may not be connected with arrows or lines. You should set a time limit of 5 to 10 minutes and jot down all the ideas you have about the topic. Instead of writing sentences, you are quickly jotting down ideas, perhaps showing connections and building a map of your thoughts.

There are online tools that can help with this process, so be sure to check the price and/or if they will work for you. Here are a few online tools that can help with this process:

Mapping and diagramming may help you create information on a topic, and/or organize information from a list or freewriting entries, as a map provides a visual for the types of information you’ve generated about a topic. For example:

Mind map showing squirrels in the center, connected to types of squirrels, how they nest, getting rid of them in the garden, and so forth.

Figure 1. A mind map can help you brainstorm connections between ideas.

Questioning Strategy

This is a basic strategy, useful at many levels, that helps you jot down the basic important information about a topic. Starting by asking the questions who? what? when? where? why? and how? For example, below are answers created for the topic: What is the impact of traditional ecological knowledge on environmental management? 

  • Who? The Dene and Kissi tribes from two different ecosystems were impacted by European colonizers and their fire management policies.
  • What? Consider the impact of fire on the peoples in both environments.
  • Where? Canadian policies and historical data compared to African policies and historical data.
  • When? As far back as the last ice age, there is evidence of how fire has impacted the land. I will focus on the impact of colonization and the policies that affected the land management practices of the indigenous peoples. I will also consider the current implications of controlling and preventing fires.
  • Why? This information is important because the knowledge from the indigenous peoples and their traditional practices provides important insights into how to improve current fire practices.
  • How? Look at historical and current records, such as Lewis, Wuerthner, Fairhead and Leach . . .

Notice how this series of questions and answers is more developed than this topic would be if you were thinking about it for the first time. This author has done a bit of preliminary reading on the subject between the two prewriting activities. This helps illustrate how prewriting can be useful to return to, even after later stages of the writing process.

If you have a broad topic you want to write about, but don’t quite know how to narrow it, you can also ask defining questions to help you develop your main idea for writing. For example, if you want to write about school taxes, you could ask:

  • Why do only property owners (and not renters) in New York State pay school taxes?
  • What percent of overall school funding comes from school taxes?
  • Do other states fund schools in the same way?
  • Does the state lottery system, initially designed to fund schools, actually support schools?
  • Is there a limit to paying school taxes when one gets older and no longer has children in school?

Once you have your questions, you can work with the list to group related questions, and then decide whether your writing can logically deal with a number of the questions together or only one. Use questioning to help develop a focus for your writing.

Sketching Strategy

You may have heard the cliché how a picture is worth a thousand words. Your first thinking is done in pictures. If you prefer to sketch out your thoughts, grab a pen and paper and draw what you are thinking. This strategy is especially effective if you are trying to conceptualize an idea or clarify relationships between parts of an idea.

Sketching involves drawing out your ideas using a pen and paper. One strategy that can be useful for planning comparison and contrast type papers is a Venn diagram. A Venn diagram is a strategy that uses two (or more) overlapping circles to show relationships between sets of ideas. The information written where two circles overlap is common to both ideas. The information written outside the overlapping area is information distinct to only one of the ideas.

Sketching Example

Explore the sketch of a Venn diagram created for the topic: What is the impact of traditional ecological knowledge on environmental management?

A venn diagram titled "Universal Use of fire by native peoples to change ecosystems". A comparison between two tribes is shown by the two sides of the diagram, and each bullet point is paired with a supporting source. There is additional writing outside of the diagram with supporting information.

Figure 2. A Venn diagram like this one can help you organize ideas for your writing.

Notice how this Venn Diagram is even more developed than the same topic explored previously. This author has done even deeper research on the subject, demonstrated by the citations given after some facts here. Again, this helps illustrate how prewriting can be useful to return to, even after later stages of the writing process.

Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of prewriting strategies. You may find that some of these are helpful for certain types of writing projects, or you may prefer other strategies such as making lists, bulleting key points, or writing out columns of pros and cons. Whichever strategy you choose, be sure to save your prewriting work. You may want to revisit this stage of the writing process again to make sure that you captured all your thoughts in your outline or first draft. You may also want to do more prewriting in the middle of your writing project if you need some help overcoming writer’s block. You may be assigned different prewriting strategies in your courses so you can find what works for you.