3 Simple Prewriting Strategies

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In an earlier post, we examined the process of writing. Keep in mind that even though the five steps I outlined can seem like a complicated way to approach writing, they are really designed to make writing easier. The writing process does this by dividing the work into simple, manageable steps.

One step that student writers frequently overlook is the first one — prewriting. They launch into a first draft before taking the time to organize their thoughts. This impatience often turns out to be costly. Papers written without preparation are not only poorer in quality, but frequently more time-consuming than papers written with attention to the prewriting phase. That’s right — skipping this step can actually cost you time.

Think of a writing project like any job. Before I started WriteAtHome, I did some house painting. Professional painters understand the importance of prep work. If I didn’t take time to prepare the surface, the paint job wouldn’t look good for long. I hated the process of scraping, sanding and crack-filling; I would have much rather started wielding a brush and slapping paint. But I knew that short-cutting the prep inevitably results in cracked and peeling paint, which just means more work later.

Don’t make that mistake in your writing. Take the time to plan and get your ideas organized on paper before starting the first draft.

Let’s take a look at three helpful prewriting strategies: freewriting, clustering, and outlining.

Freewriting

Often the hardest part of writing is getting started. It might be that you just have little or nothing to say, or it might be that there is such a crowd of ideas waiting to get out that they cause a mental traffic jam. Freewriting is a terrific tool for clearing the road and reducing thought congestion.

Freewriting is writing without concern for correctness or quality. It’s writing without worrying about grammar, spelling or punctuation. It is an attempt to unleash your creativity without interference from the more conscientious quality-control center of your brain. The purpose is to get your ideas out of your head and onto the paper or computer screen where they belong. Don’t worry about what they look like once they’re there. (If you want, you can clean them up later.) I like to describe freewriting as “brain vomit.” Not an attractive thought, but it conveys the idea.

There’s only one rule in freewriting: Don’t stop. It’s not thinking and then writing; it’s thinking as you write. Let your thoughts come as fast as they can, and make your fingers try to keep up. If you are writing with a pen or pencil, keep it moving. If you are using a keyboard, keep the keys clicking.

Freewriting is a great way to write when you “can’t think of anything to say.” In fact, those might be the first words you write down. Here’s an example:

I can’t think of anything to say so I am just going to keep on putting these words on the paper until my brain starts working and then I can get to work on this paper that I’m not very excited about because it’s a research paper and I’d rather stick toothpicks in my eyeballs than do research paper especially one on Eskimos like my teacher said because I don’t know much about Eskimos although I had an Eskimo pie once and liked it, but I get this picture of Eskimos in parkas and round ice igloos that you always see in cartoons and I wonder if that’s really the way they live, maybe that’s what I should write about—the kinds of houses Eskimos live in That would be a good idea and I wonder if they ever eat Eskimo pies…

Freewriting is a warm up exercise for the cranium. It’s fun because you can’t make mistakes (other than stopping to think). So next time you’re having trouble getting started, start with freewriting. And don’t be surprised if somewhere in there you discover a good idea or two.

Clustering

Clustering goes by many names: webbing, mind-mapping, bubbling, diagramming. It is an easy and graphic way to capture your ideas on paper while showing how each idea is related to the others.

Clustering is typically done with pen and paper or with a chalk or dry-erase board . Begin by placing a topic in the center of the page and drawing a circle around it. Then, as related words, phrases, and ideas come to mind, write them, circle them, and connect them to the circles that enclose related ideas. Continue as long as you like, filling up the page with an increasingly complex map of your thoughts. Keep coming back to the central idea before you wander too far off the original topic.

What makes clustering so helpful is that most of us don’t think in straight lines. Our minds may start in one direction, but one thought leads to a another that we might want to record before going back to the original idea. Clustering allows the mind to wander down related lines of thought as long as you like. Ideas spur ideas and the connections we make keep us from forgetting the idea we started with.

Below is an example of a cluster based on last week’s lesson on the writing process:

Cluster

Like freewriting, clustering allows the creative side of your brain to run wild, enabling you to get related ideas out in the open where you can then begin selecting, deleting, and arranging them into a plan for your actual paper.

But freewheeling exercises like these don’t necessarily leave you ready to start your first draft. We recommend an intermediate step: creating an outline.

Outlining

Outlining is practically a dirty word to many students. The painstaking organization of thought required in outlining intimidates and discourages many writers. But students who diligently outline their ideas, even roughly, before starting a first draft almost always find the actual writing a much easier task.

We don’t have time to teach formal outlining in this lesson, but if you have not learned how to create an outline, we recommend you find a good text or teacher who can help you. Basic outlining is a skill every student should know well.

We believe no prewriting strategy is more helpful than outlining. Strategies like freewriting and clustering can help you loosen the clogged ideas in your brain and get something onto an otherwise blank sheet of paper, but only old-fashioned outlining will put those scattered ideas into a manageable order.

We think the best strategy is to combine freewriting or clustering with outlining. Use one of the first two “brainstorming” strategies and then fashion an outline to corral your scattered ideas . Below is the cluster example above converted into a simple outline. Before this outline would be helpful to the writing process, however, the writer should fill in some detail and perhaps eliminate some of the less significant points.

Outline example
Besides freewriting, clustering, and outlining, there are many creative and practical ways to prepare yourself for writing. Learning just these three, however, can make a tremendous difference in your writing. Become familiar with them, and look for opportunities to use them as you apply the writing process to your assignments.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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  4. Martha
    Martha07-05-2016

    Thank you for this. I am currently in the editing process. I have written my whole life but usually have a hard time staying with the story I wrote. I get to a certain place editing and decide I no longer like what I wrote. Having guidance gives me some direction to keep focused on this story.

  5. Annadee
    Annadee09-20-2015

    Haven’t even thought about writing for a while but you got me back to at least thinking about it. Maybe writing will again become a stress reliever. Lord knows I need one and yoga doesn’t seem to be for me. Thanks.

  6. Karen Clark
    Karen Clark02-02-2014

    I’ve been taking some online writing classes, and your outline is a nice format for using the techniques I’m learning. Great organization. I copied it and put it in the front of my writing notebook. Thank you.

  7. Victoria F.
    Victoria F.01-31-2014

    I am going to begin writing my personal statement for graduate school tomorrow and I will be using these tips to get the ball rolling! Thank you for your clear and direct advice on beginning the writing process.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko01-31-2014

      It’s great to hear my post is being put to such practical use. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Victoria. And best wishes on graduate school!

  8. Leticia Rincon
    Leticia Rincon01-25-2014

    Thank you for sharing. I really enjoyed visiting your site.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko01-26-2014

      I’m glad, Leticia. Thanks for taking a moment to comment.

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