Prewriting is the part of the writing process in which you generate ideas for writing. No writer can express, develop, and organize ideas all at once. Prewriting acknowledges that. It’s the “messy” stage of writing that’s crucially important as a way of getting your ideas flowing. Prewriting helps you recognize the ideas you may want to investigate and build upon in a essay. Just writing ideas on paper, or typing phrases in a word document, primes your brain for writing.
Know that when you’re writing based on reading, you automatically engage in some prewriting when you apply reading strategies for understanding a text. For example, annotating, note taking, and questioning all contribute to prewriting, since those strategies start to elicit your own ideas about a text. That doesn’t mean that you can skip prewriting, though, when you need to compose your own text. Prewriting strategies can help you reflect on your notes and annotations, identify questions you want to pursue more fully, or think more specifically about ideas that you’ve summarized.
There are many different prewriting strategies that work equally well whether or not you are basing your writing on a text that you’ve read.
The purpose of freewriting is to identify a topic for writing.
Freewriting is just what it sounds like—you write freely whatever comes into your head. The idea here is to keep your fingers moving. Time yourself for 5 minutes, and just keep writing, even if you’re writing “I don’t know what to write.” Set the freewriting aside and, after a few minutes, do another freewriting. Often, when you do a series of four or five freewritings, you can identify recurring ideas. A recurring idea might be fruitful to develop into a more extended piece of writing.
When you freewrite to generate an idea for an essay based on a text, you usually start with a concept from the text and then freely associate ideas occur to you about that concept. The concept may be the text’s main idea or a supporting idea, or even an example or detail that the author used to explain an idea. You might also freewrite about an association you made with the text based on your background knowledge or experience.
Asking questions can help you both identify a topic for writing, and identify ideas about that topic.
For example, you may want to ask and answer questions such as “What am I interested in?” or “What news article/issue has captured my interest recently?” in order to identify a topic for writing. Or, you may want to ask and answer a series of ever-narrowing questions to help you narrow your thoughts to one aspect of a broad topic, in order to develop a manageable question or topic about which to write. For example:
Once you think you have an appropriate topic or question, you may ask journalists’ questions of “who, what, when, where, why, and how” to develop ideas further. You may also ask questions about your own knowledge of the topic, what you may need to read or research in order to supplement that knowledge, and what types of sources may yield the research you need.
When you use questions to prewrite for an essay based on a text, revisit any questions you may have asked about a text while or after reading that text. Were your questions answered in the text? If so, what additional questions do those answers bring to mind? If not, what information do you need in order to answer those questions? Jotting down questions related to a text and answering those questions can help you identify ideas for a topic and for supporting that topic when you write based on a text.
Brainstorming & Listing
The purpose of brainstorming and listing is to develop ideas once you already have a topic.
When you brainstorm, you freely associate in order to develop all possible ideas and information related to a topic. You jot down any and all ideas, no matter how unorthodox or different they are, so that you can capture all nuances of a topic that occur to you.
Listing is similar, although lists are often more focused than brainstorming. The basic difference lies in the scope of the ideas. Lists often include ideas that are more “orthodox,” related directly to the topic at hand.
When you brainstorm or list to develop ideas based on a text, review your notes, annotations, summaries, questions—any information you jotted down during and after reading. Choose a topic from those notes that you want to pursue further, or choose a related topic from your own experience. Brainstorm around that topic, or list out recurring ideas from your notes
that relate to the topic. You may want to apply the strategy of making increasingly narrow lists, similar to the concept in the question and answer chain above, to develop ideas focused around a specific topic.
An idea matrix is one type of graphic organizer. The purpose of graphic organizers is to both develop ideas about a topic and group similar ideas.
When you use graphic organizers to develop ideas based on a text, choose an idea from the text that piques your interest, that you agree or disagree with, or that you have further thoughts about. Jot down your thoughts and, as you are doing so, link related information to show relationships. For example, if you decide to work with an idea with which you disagree, you might draw a mind map with that disagreeable idea in the center, and then bubbles for each reason why you disagree. You’d then draw smaller bubbles coming off of each reason to provide evidence and details. You might even have a bubble showing reasons to agree, although this would be smaller than your reasons to disagree.
One particular type of graphic organizer is an idea matrix, which is a way to prewrite once you have an idea of what you want to write about. The next page, Idea Matrix, goes into more depth with this useful prewriting technique, which is a link between prewriting and starting an essay draft.
Note that an idea matrix can be used in many different ways in addition to being used as a prewriting strategy. On the page Visuals & Graphic Organizers, there’s a video that discusses using an idea matrix as a reading strategy to interact with a text. On the page Reading, Noting, & Synthesizing Sources, you’ll read about using an idea matrix to figure out where to place source information in a research essay.
Summary of Prewriting Techniques
The video below reviews and provides examples of freewriting, questioning, brainstorming, and using graphic organizers (clustering).