Prewriting: How and Why?

Prewriting is the writing you do before you start the actual essay. The goal of this step in the writing process is to gather up ideas and details that you might include in the final piece of writing.

Prewriting strategies include listing, freewriting, mapping or clustering, even sketching or talking out your ideas into a tape recorder.

You can use these techniques to come up with topics to write about or to generate ideas about a particular topic. This is the creative part of the process, so you don’t want to censor yourself here. Let the ideas flow. Don’t judge them. If a thought occurs to you that might be connected to your subject, write it down. You don’t have to write in complete sentences, and no one else needs to understand what you’ve written, so abbreviate, ignore spelling and grammar – do whatever it takes to get the thoughts on the page.

You might ask why it’s important to do this step in actual writing. Couldn’t you just think about your topic?

That doesn’t work nearly as well, for several reasons. First, you won’t have a handy record of your ideas later when you try to write the essay. I know you think you’ll remember the points you want to make, but the longer an essay you’re writing, the more points there will be, and you’re likely to forget at least some. Besides that, don’t you have more important things to carry around in your head than the points you want to make in your next paper? Write them down.

Second, when you write down your thoughts, you actually focus your brain to draw out more ideas. When you can look back over what you have so far, it jogs your mind, and new ideas will come to you. Some of them will be far better than the ones off the top of your head. What you want in your writing is original, interesting details. The first things you think of about a topic are also likely to be the first things your reader will think of - not very interesting to read. Prewriting will help you go beyond the obvious and generate better material for your writing.

And finally, having your ideas on paper will help you to organize them better. Have you ever had the feeling that your ideas were going around in circles in your head? The way to make that stop, and get your thoughts in order, is to write them down. You start by writing them in a big jumble, and then little by little, you sort through them and get them organized.

Meanwhile, another bonus is, you’ve started on your writing project in a way that’s low-stress and painless. Students who prewrite first tend to start their papers earlier and finish them sooner than those who don’t. Which would you rather do: jot down your ideas any old way as they come into your head, or stare at a blank computer screen trying to come up with the start of an essay? Try prewriting once, and you’ll see which way is easier.

Tips for effective prewriting

1. Give yourself plenty of time and space. There usually comes a point in prewriting when you’ve been putting down ideas pretty quickly and easily, but suddenly the flow stops. Don’t quit there. Just sit for a minute, look back over what you have, and wait. More ideas are coming, and they’ll be some of the best ones you get, so don’t cut the process short.

Also, be sure you have lots of space on your paper. There’s a temptation not to write a thought down if you’re at the edge of the page. The idea here is to capture as much material as possible. So if you fill a whole page, get another and keep going. If you’re mapping, you can actually tape the pages together to make a larger piece. Never hesitate to write down ideas because you don’t have space for them. You’ll regret it later.

2. Different strategies work better for different kinds of writing. Some prewriting skills just work naturally for some kinds of writing. For example, listing is great for comparison and contrast essays, while a more fluid technique like mapping works well for creative forms like narrative essays. It’s a great idea to use two different strategies with the same writing project; you’ll likely get unique material from each.

3. Get comfortable with several techniques, even though you’ll have a favorite. Most people gravitate toward a particular prewriting technique that comes naturally to them. Some writers are natural born listers, while others do better with freewriting or mapping. With practice, you’ll find which strategies work best for you. But you should experiment with all of them. The technique that works beautifully for you on narrative essays might not work as well for a long research paper. You may need to adjust your method to the kind of writing project you’re doing, so try to get comfortable with several.

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