Text: Prewriting Strategies

Prewriting is the first stage in the writing process. When using a prewriting strategy, you jot your initial thoughts about a topic down on paper. Prewriting has no set structure or organization; it is usually just a collection of ideas that may 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.

Mind-mapping Strategy

Mind-mapping is very similar to freewriting, but the outcome often looks more like a list of 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. Here are some online tools that can help with this process:

  • Check out Inspiration Software where you can use a free trial of their software for thirty days.
  • Try XMind, a free mind mapping tool that runs on both Mac and PC computers.
  • Use Mindomo, which is a collaborative mind-mapping tool. You may use the basic tool for free or pay a minimal fee for extra features.

Mind-mapping Strategy in Action

Explore an example of mind-mapping created for the topic: how can I reinvent myself with a new job role?
Hand-drawn mind map. Central thought: My new role. Blue and purple lines radiate from it. From top right, clockwise, in blue: Work as needed - seasonal. Admin - Back office / Important papers - Compliance / Confidentiality. Process Improvements. 1-2 Days in Office. Consultant. Volunteer manager - recruiting / assigning tasks. HR Manager. Writing - Process / Procedures / Archives. Support - Flyers / Community Events. In purple: Tester - Software. Trainer - Software / Marketing. Online Trainer. Online Professor - Business? / Strayer. Increase Savings - Barter / Referrals. Government Full-Time - Homeland security / NSA / Outreach / World Bank / Stability. E-Bay - Clothes. Baked Goods. Jewelry Distributor. Blogger - Recycling / Special Needs / Bargain shopper.

Freewriting Strategy

Freewriting Strategy is the process of simply writing down any and all ideas about the topic that pop into your mind. Set a timer for yourself and write continuously for 5 or 10 minutes on your topic. If you run out of ideas, rewrite the last word or phrase on the page until another idea jumps into your thoughts. Keep writing, even if it doesn’t make sense! At this point, you are just getting your ideas down on paper without editing or judging them. If you are trying to decide between topics, it is a good idea to freewrite on all of them to see which one provides you with the best ideas.

Freewriting in Action

Explore an example of free-writing created for the topic: What is the impact of traditional ecological knowledge on environmental management?

Fire control, fire prevention, look at two different environments, contrasting ecosystems and the role of fire and impact on humans — Dene in Alberta — what is the role of fire in their environment? How does this contrast or compare with an African tribe? Didn’t I read something about the Kissi tribe and how colonization affected their environment because the French outlawed their land management practices? What is the landscape there? Savannah is much different than the Boreal forests of Canada, and might provide a good comparison. I need to look at the European view and how it affected both communities with their policies — How did it interfere or support the traditional use of fire in these communities? They didn’t appreciate the knowledge of the people who were there before . . .

Questioning Strategy

This is a basic strategy, useful at many levels, that helps you jot down the basic important information about a topic.

Questioning Strategy in Action

Explore the 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 . . .

Note: Notice how this series of questions and answers is more developed than the same topic explored previously in Freewriting. 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.

Sketching Strategy

A picture is worth a thousand words. Your first thinking is done in pictures. So, if you are a visual learner and like 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 Strategy in Action

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

Image titled Universal Use of fire by native peoples to change ecosystems. Three circles filled with text are central: a red one in the middle, with a drawing of a fire. Written across the fire: Land management practices outlawed in 1970’s in New Guinea by French colonizers. On left, a green circle labeled The Dine Tribe - Alberta, Canada. Inside the circle: series of biogas and fire climate zones emanating in rings from Hudson Bay (Pyne), evidence from carbon deposits in lake sediment (Murphy), 95% of Canada’s Boreal forest grows on what was once burnt land (Slaughter), Boreal forests receive a greater # of lightning strikes then [sic] other regions (Pyne). Continuing below the circle: The Dene used controlled burns to protect the inhabited areas. Burns happened in the spring and warmed the land to encourage earlier growth and a longer growing season. New growth attracted animals. On right, a brown circle labeled The Kissi Tribe - New Guinea - Africa. Inside the circle: Savannah grassland prone to wildfires, wild fire affects foraging patterns of grazing animals, because fresh growth sprouts in burned areas (Archibald), “patchiness” of the savannah created because young trees are more likely to survive wildfire when protected by clumps of older trees (Hochberg). Continuing outside the circle: The Kissi removed grass from around inhabited areas and used for roofs. Animals grazed around the village. Over time trees became established and it changes from grassland to fire resistant forests. Above the circles, in blue: Policies of the New Comers: Forest reserves in Canada started in 1905/1906. Used fire rangers to protect the timber reserves. Fire suppression on Native reserves (1981). Early Europeans arriving in Canada and the French colonizers in Guinea saw fire as a destroyer. Neglected to appreciate the fire-ecology knowledge of native inhabitants. Mixed success for land management policies and fire prevention practices. In 1893 thought the dense forest was just the remains of a great forest, and that the use of fire by the Kissi had destroyed the forest. In fact, the villagers were creating forests.

Note: Notice how this Venn Diagram is even more developed than the same topic explored previously in Freewriting and Questioning. 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.

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.