Prewriting is the first stage of the writing process and the point at which we discover and explore our initial ideas about a subject. Prewriting helps us to get our ideas on paper, though not usually in an organized form, and brainstorm thoughts that might eventually make their way into our writing. Listed below are some of the most common types of prewriting techniques. You should become familiar with all of these and figure out the one that works best for you. The different types of prewriting that we will explore here are freewriting, brainstorming, clustering, tagmemics, and journalistic technique.
Freewriting involves jotting down on paper all of the ideas you have on a particular topic before you even begin to read about it or do research. You are not worried about complete sentences, proper spelling, or correct punctuation and grammar. Instead, you are interested in “dumping” all of the information you have on paper. You should write everything that comes into your head—even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense yet. Give your self a set amount of time (maybe five to ten minutes), and write down everything that comes to mind about your topic.
Example: I have to write a paper about the environment. I have no idea where to start! I know there are many problems with the environment, but I don’t know much about this topic. Maybe I could take a look at my biology book to come up with some ideas. I know my biology professor is also really into the environment, so maybe I could ask for his help. I remember he was talking about hybrid cars in class the other day and how much better those are for the environment. What is a hybrid car? I know it uses some sort of alternative fuel and they are becoming very popular. Maybe that is something I could write about…
Much like freewriting, brainstorming involves capturing all of the thoughts, ideas, and fragments in your head and writing them down on paper. Often, brainstorming looks more like a list while freewriting may look more like a paragraph. With either strategy, your goal is to get as many ideas down on paper as you can.
With this technique, you start with a circle in the middle that contains your main idea and then you draw lines to other, smaller circles that contain sub-ideas or issues related to the main idea. Try to group like ideas together so as to organize yourself.
Example: About the value of a college education
Particle, Wave, Field (Tagmemics)
The basic idea underlying tagmemics can be easily stated: an object, experience, or idea can be viewed as a particle (a static unit), a wave (a dynamic unit changing over time), or a field (a unit seen in the context of a larger network of relationships). Each of these perspectives encourages you to ask different kinds of questions about your subject (represented here as X).
If you view something as a particle, you focus on it as a static (still) entity. For example, if you were exploring ideas for a sociology paper on the transformation of the American nuclear family, you could use a particle perspective to ask questions like the following:
If you look at a subject from the wave perspective, you view it as dynamic or changing over time. The wave perspective would encourage you to ask the following questions:
Finally, if you look at a subject from a field perspective, you ask questions about the way that the subject functions as a part of a larger network of relationships. This perspective would encourage you to ask questions like these:
As you may know, journalists have six important questions they need to answer about any story they report: who, what, when, where, why, and how. By answering these questions, journalists can be certain that they have provided the most important information about an event, issue, or problem to their readers.
These questions are also useful to you as writers when you are describing and event or writing an informative essay. As with the exploded moment, this technique allows you to make sure you have provided all of the important and specific details of a situation.
Suppose that your government professor has asked to write about the political conflict in the Middle East. Using the journalistic technique, you could begin working on the paper by asking yourself the following questions:
Using the journalistic technique helps you make sure you have answered all of the important questions.
Aside from the strategies listed on these pages, it is also sometimes useful to discuss your ideas with a classmate, friend, or professor. Often, brainstorming aloud and hearing your ideas in auditory fashion can help you think about ways to start your paper. A great resource is the Writing Lab. You do not have to have a rough draft to go the lab; often, it is useful to go there and brainstorm ideas with one of the tutors. Finally, before you begin your prewriting techniques, make sure you thoroughly understand the purpose and audience for the assignment. Ask questions if you are unsure what you are supposed to do. It is difficult to prewrite if you do not understand the assignment.
Though you have already used brainstorming, clustering, or any of a number of other prewriting techniques, the particle, wave, field and journalistic techniques are slightly more formal. Try these new ways of prewriting and compare them to the previous strategies you used. The key to any prewriting is finding something that works for you and also finding a technique that is comprehensive enough. Jotting down a word or sentence or two for prewriting is usually not enough; the more ideas you can get on paper in the early stages of writing, the stronger your final paper will be.
Remember to save all of your prewriting! You will have to turn in this step with the rest of your writing, so make sure you put is somewhere safe until the paper is due. Also, your prewriting will often look very different from the final draft. That’s ok—remember that this is just the first step to get you started writing. Your writing will evolve in each step you take it through.
Ede, Lisa. Work in Progress: A Guide to Academic Writing and Revising. 5th ed. Boston:
Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.
Dawson, Melanie, and Joe Essid. “Pre-Writing: Clustering.” University of Richmond
Writing Center. 31 August 2005.