Working with Prewriting

The point of prewriting is to record an array of thoughts so that you have a pool to draw from for your essay. You may have recorded a mish-mash of information and ideas. I know that I think of my prewriting as a splatter. My prewriting tends to be the stuff that’s in my head that I just have to spill out on paper (okay, so I have messy stuff going on in my head). The task then becomes to sort through that stuff, choosing some pieces and discarding others, so that I’m moving from a hodgepodge of information to a focus that I can develop and support for an essay.

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In essence, to work with prewriting, you need to move from self to subject. As important as each piece of prewriting is in helping you identify ideas for writing, a prewriting entry alone may not provide enough information to write a whole essay. Prewriting is confined only to your own experiences, observations, and thoughts. In order to develop an essay, you may need to bring in additional experiences, observations, and thoughts–information that reflects not only your specific experiences, but also the general human experience. An essay always uses your own personal insights and thoughts as its basis, but it also broadens out so that those thoughts have relevance for others. (Dave Barry’s syndicated newspaper columns provide a good example. I’m thinking of one essay in particular that described his experience with a new toilet, the kind that doesn’t use much water and thus doesn’t flush very well. He used his own experience as the basis for a broader reflection on problems with modern technology and problems with legislation, things that most adults can relate to in some way.)

So, how do you work with your prewriting to make that shift from self to subject?

  1. Review it to identify the various main ideas that are embedded in the prewriting.
  2. List those ideas.
  3. Write the ideas in thesis form. That is, make an assertion that explains your own insight or idea about the topic, and write that assertion in complete sentence form.

The working thesis, which can be developed from prewriting, is the key to writing an essay.

Sample Student Work from Prewriting to Thesis (from Self to Subject)

Sample #1 – Student Brainstorming, “Insect Life in Japan”

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  • Gokiburi is the Japanese word for cockroach
  • my landlord simply picked it up and threw it out of the window
  • Nagoya was heaven for insects of all kinds
  • misconception. people in U.S. associate roaches with being dirty, and this is not true. Attitude in Japan is very different.
  • roaches have been around for about 3 million years
  • ways to control them: sprays, boric acid
  • large roach contest by spray manufacturers. Poor postman having to carry them all around and deliver them
  • winner was very large

This student found the following types of information within the brainstorming list:

  1. Japanese vs. American views of roaches
  2. ways of controlling roaches
  3. large roach contest
  4. postal carrier’s difficulties

The student then could make a point–offer an idea–about one of the types of information:

  1. Japanese and American attitudes toward roaches differ greatly.
  2. There are many ways to control roaches.
  3. Different types of absurdities are associated with a large roach contest.
  4. For various reasons, running a large roach contest to promote bug spray is a good promotional tactic.
  5. Mail carriers suffer many annoyances and/or hazards in the course of their everyday work.

Sample #2 – Student Journal Entry, “Disposing of Radioactive Waste”

decorative imageThe issue of a low-level radioactive waste site being built in this county is a hot one. Recently a group of about 50 residents formed a human chain around representatives of the siting commission who were here to test the soil at three proposed sites for the waste facility. These residents were from every walk of life: housewives, doctors, shop owners, lawyers, teachers, students. All felt strongly that they did not want a waste facility near their homes. They realized that they could be arrested for their actions, yet they were determined to stop the team from testing the soil and they were willing to be arrested for their belief that a waste facility shouldn’t be built near people’s homes. This well-organized, energetic group of “warriors” got a small boost when the State Police arrived and did not arrest them, but instead escorted the members of the commission off of the land. They considered this a small victory in a much larger battle that may take years to settle. They feel that the State is not playing fair with them about the facts. So little is known about long-time exposure to low-level radiation that even the experts can’t seem to agree. And there is a lot of distrust about the motives of those responsible for choosing a site for the facility. All of this uncertainty, plus the fact that no waste facility in the country has been 100% leakproof, has drawn people together as never before. Whether their voices will be heard remains to be seen, but whatever the outcome, hopefully it will be resolved peacefully.

This student found many points that she could make–many ideas that were embedded in the journal entry:

  1. The disposal of radioactive waste is a complex problem that people and their government representatives need to address.
  2. Results of long-term human exposure to low-level radioactive waste are inconclusive.
  3. Some people feel that their land and homes are worth fighting for no matter what.
  4. Adversity can make people unite.
  5. Often, in a crisis situation, the unexpected happens.
  6. People have taken a number of tactics to ensure that radioactive waste is not dumped in their communities.
  7. The proposal to locate a radioactive waste disposal facility in an area can result in a number of reactions including passive resistance, vocal protests, legal action and, in some cases, violent acts.

Sample #3 – Student Question and Answer Chains, “Education”

Education in what country? the U.S.
What level of education? preschool; Head Start
What particular program? Head Start’s reading readiness program
How effective is this program?

decorative imageThis student did some preliminary research to answer her question in this way:

Head Start’s reading readiness programs are very effective in preparing children to read in elementary school because they teach eye movement from left to right, they teach children to associate sounds with letter symbols, and they teach children to associate reading with pleasant experiences.


Education in what country? the U.S.
What level of education? college
What aspect of college ed.? older, returning students
What are the challenges they face?

decorative imageThis student answered her question in this way:

Adult students returning to college face many challenges that range from managing their time and family life to re-learning how to study to re-defining their self-concepts.

(this page’s text © Empire State College)