Prewriting Practices
By Alice L. Trupe

Prewriting refers to the range of activities in which the writer engages before setting fingers on the keyboard (or pen to paper). Prewriting is the process of generating and recording ideas. The main distinction between this stage and planning is that it is the creative phase rather than the more critical phase of planning. In planning, the writer considers and rejects ideas. Prewriting activity is less critical, given to coming up with as much material as possible, some to be incorporated, some to be rejected.

When we teach prewriting, we often focus on writing activities, or some sort of verbal process, such as responding to another text or another person's ideas. In a “real-world” writing situation--where a writer writes because she feels compelled to say something in writing--prewriting may include reading published or unpublished print text or a Webpage, participating in a conversation, hearing or viewing a news story or dramatic production, conversing with friends, attending a speech or other formal presentation, etc., etc. Something the writer reads or hears prompts her to write. Or a writer must prepare something for a given occasion: he is scheduled to deliver a speech, a presentation, a sermon. In either case, the writer will probably begin jotting down ideas, perhaps speaking ideas into a tape recorder, and may talk the ideas over with another person.

In a classroom situation, prewriting includes the preliminary introduction of the material or the occasion for writing. At the secondary or college level, the writing assignment may be based on a reading assignment or lecture material, and we may consider the reading, performing additional research, or listening to the lecture as part of the prewriting stage. The first writing the student engages in, then, might be taking notes or making marginal comments in a book he owns or on the hard (printed) copy of materials found on the Internet or in a computer database.

Or, more simply, his prewriting may begin when a writing assignment is presented in the classroom, taking notes on the teacher's comments or reading the text of the assignment. Journal keeping is a useful bridge between reading or other classroom activities and writing, and many teachers assign reading-response journals or personal writing journals as daily or weekly writing activities. A journal may be used, then, as a storehouse of ideas for further development in more formal writing assignments. (Journal-keeping will be discussed more fully in the context of Designing Assignments: Thinking about Genre.) But often it takes some explicit instruction in prewriting activities for the student to make an easy transition from this reading, note-taking, and journaling into getting started on a story or poem, essay, report, or research paper assignment.

Teaching prewriting practices in the classroom will give each student writer a repertoire of techniques for getting started on writing or overcoming writer's block. And it's important to think about prewriting activities that don't use words as well. Drawing, listening to music, and working with simple models can aid students in generating ideas for a writing project.

A Repertoire of Prewriting Practices

To help students move from thinking about writing to preliminary composing of a text, engage them in activities that require them to actively generate ideas in a concrete form--that is, put ideas onto a computer screen or sheet of paper. In prewriting, ideas are simply generated, not judged for their value in a finished text; evaluation can come at the point of planning. Working alone, a writer can engage in writing activities that produce preliminary ideas, or a writer can make visual representations of ideas that can be "translated" into sentences in the drafting phase. Working with others, a writer can talk or chat in an electronic environment about ideas for the paper. The two most important aspects of all of the prewriting activities described here are: (1) the student must actively compose something, and (2) the ideas generated should not be critiqued at this stage.

Prewriting activities such as brainstorming, freewriting, and asking questions are good ways to start the process with writing.

In brainstorming, the writer creates a "storm" of ideas, not passing judgment on any of them or censoring any idea that comes to mind, no matter how apparently absurd it is. This is not the time to think about whether or not this idea will actually fit into a paper. The writer can brainstorm by talking with peers or a family member or a writing center consultant, with pen in hand to list the ideas that come to mind, or she can brainstorm alone, simply listing everything she thinks of with regard to the writing task. It is important to remember that at this stage in the writing process, anything goes--main ideas, details, feelings, whatever comes to mind.

Brainstorming can be practiced as a group activity. Small groups can brainstorm ideas, with one person (or the instructor) recording ideas, or the class as a whole can brainstorm. The group may then select and order ideas from this brainstorming list to plan individually or collaboratively written texts. When students practice the writing process, we don't need to teach them about the writing process.

Activity: Pause in your reading for a few minutes and try some brainstorming now. Imagine you have been assigned the task of writing a personal essay on, say, your favorite season. With pen and paper or sitting at the computer, list as many ideas related to this topic as you can think of in a few minutes.

Freewriting is a famous prewriting technique proposed by Peter Elbow. It is similar to brainstorming but requires more sustained writing. A writer practices freewriting by writing everything that comes to mind during a preset time period, say five or ten minutes. The requirement is that he not stop writing at all during that period. If he can't think of anything to say, he may write, "I can't think of anything to say," or if he finds the exercise boring, he may write something like, "This is boring. Why are we doing this anyway?" Most students practicing freewriting will not get stuck in this kind of response and will go on to produce often surprising amounts of text.

Elbow prescribed freewriting as a regular exercise for the writer, enabling him to find his "voice," his natural writing persona. Freewriting is intended to liberate the writer from struggling to generate text, too. It can be used in the classroom in this way, as simply a daily exercise to give students practice in putting words on paper or the computer screen. Set a time limit--five minutes is plenty to start. It's best not to read students' freewrites unless they give you permission to do so. You may want to ask students simply to keep their freewrites in a special notebook or folder so that they may return to them for writing ideas, rather than collecting them. You can walk around the classroom and record their participation in the activity with a checkmark beside each name. You may sometimes want to ask for volunteers to read all or part of their freewriting. But the really important aspect of freewriting is its loosening up or liberating value for the writer, not its completion as a task for the teacher's perusal.

Some writers find it useful, when freewriting at the computer, to turn off the monitor or darken the screen and freewrite without seeing text. It takes their minds off correctness and allows their thoughts to wander more freely. If your class meets in a computer lab, you'll probably want students to try freewriting both ways, with and without seeing their text, to determine what works best for each of them.

Activity: Take five to ten minutes to try some freewriting. Using pen and paper or sitting at the computer, simply write everything that comes to mind. The important thing is to keep writing. If you can't think of anything to write, write, "I can't think of anything to write. I can't think of anything to write," until your active brain pushes you away from such boring repetition into saying something new. If you can set a timer or ask someone else to time you, you won't pay attention to the time and will be able to focus more on your writing.

Portfolio or Journal Assignment: Try freewriting regularly over a period of weeks, writing daily for two weeks or three to four times a week for four or more weeks. At the end of the assigned period, reflect on what results, if any, you see in your writing habits and evaluate its usefulness to you personally.

Freewriting can also be used to start students thinking about a particular writing assignment or to help them overcome writer's block at any point in composing a text. Guided freewriting focuses on a topic. Students can use a series of short freewrites to jumpstart their text by writing for five minutes, then selecting one idea, sentence, or phrase from the freewriting as the starting point for a second five-minute freewriting more narrowly focused on that particular idea. This process can be repeated as many times as needed.

For example, a high school student who has been assigned to write about the career she would like to pursue, when she doesn’t have any idea what she'd like to do, will probably have difficulty writing on the topic. Her first freewriting might start generally:

I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life and this isn’t helping. Having to write about this just makes me nervous. My parents are pressuring me to make plans. I just don’t know. They want me to visit some colleges. I don’t really want to leave home yet. I don’t want to leave Joe, and I don’t want to live in a dorm. I feel like they’re pushing me out the door. Don’t I have a choice? I like my job at the garden center. Maybe I’ll take some classes at the community college.

Looking at this freewrite, you might ask the student to write about the garden center or about taking community college classes. Ask her to write the sentence, “I like my job at the garden center,” and to follow it with the question, “What do I like about it?” Then she’s ready to begin another timed writing. In a series of such guided freewrites, the student may generate a substantial amount of text that she can actually use in completing the assignment.

Asking questions is a good way to go about starting a story, an expository essay, or a research paper. The journalist's five Ws (Who? What? Where? When? Why?) have often been successfully used as a prewriting prompt for writers at many levels. But the writer may generate a more specific, topic-related set of questions, depending on the requirements of the assignment and his preliminary knowledge of the topic.

Writing about a topic on which he himself is well versed, the writer may imagine the reader as a complete novice and may jot down questions he envisions the reader asking. For example, if the writer has spent some time at the ocean and the writing assignment enables him to communicate his knowledge, he may imagine another student in class as asking, “Did you swim in the ocean? Did you see any sharks? How high were the waves? Did you build a sand castle?”

When the student is assigned a research-based paper or report on a topic that interests him but one with which he’s not very familiar, he may use questions to guide his research and later to begin writing. He might ask, “When did dinosaurs live? Did they hunt humans? What did they eat? Did they fight a lot with each other?” As he finds answers to his questions, he may discover that he has more questions. Ultimately, he may be able to use the answers to his questions as the basis for an outline and the introduction to his paper.

Activity: Choose a topic that you are interested in researching, either for a real classroom assignment or simply as a matter of personal interest. Generate a list of questions that you think might supply you with the information you need to write a paper on that topic.

Purdue’s OWL handout on Thought Starters lists 20 questions with the note “Adapted from Jacqueline Berke's Twenty Questions for the Writer”

Other kinds of prewriting activities may revolve around more visual representations of ideas. Clustering, diagramming, drawing, or envisioning a Webpage on the topic may help a writer get started on a writing task.

Clustering works like brainstorming: ideas should be jotted down quickly, without critique. The writer begins with a single word closely associated with the topic that she places at the center of the page. Then she jots additional words and phrases around it on the page. Having lots of white space around short phrases and single words makes it easier for the writer to make links between the ideas she has generated, adding circles to group ideas and lines to connect ideas in various ways. This activity may be much more pleasurable if undertaken with a handful of felt-tip markers in various colors.

Activity: Let’s go back to that assignment for the brainstorming activity. Collect some markers, crayons, or several colors of pens, if you wish. Now, imagine you have been assigned the task of writing a personal essay on your favorite season. Choose a season and write its name in the center of a sheet of paper. Then jot down the words and phrases that come to mind and connect them.

Portfolio or Journal Activity: Write a short personal essay on your favorite season, drawing upon the ideas you generated by brainstorming and clustering. Add a short analysis of whether the prewriting activities helped you think about the topic and, if they were helpful, what impact they had on your thinking and writing.

Diagramming may be used as a prewriting or planning activity. A tree diagram is a more orderly visual representation than clustering because it is more analytical. To diagram a topic as a prewriting activity, write a word or phrase that represents the topic at the top of the page and then list the subtopics that occur to you in a row below it. Each subtopic may be further subdivided in as many rows as are needed.

Drawing may be a useful prewriting tool for visually oriented students. In ARTiculating: Teaching Writing in a Visual World, Eric H. Hobson suggests storyboarding as a prewriting activity: quickly, roughly sketch six pictures of a narrative. The prewriting activity helps visual thinkers compose an overview of the topic they will then translate into words.

Activity: Imagine you have been assigned to write an essay about your adjustment to college life. Make several simple sketches of the scenes that you recall from your early days in college.

Portfolio of Journal Activity: Write the essay you have begun by storyboarding. Add an analysis of whether and how storyboarding aided your writing process.

Envisioning a Webpage is another way to think visually about writing. Students who are ready to begin writing about their topic may find it useful to envision it as a Webpage, with short bits of text, graphics, and links. If your class has access to a computer lab where students can create Webpages, you will certainly want to assign them. You will probably find that they enjoy creating Webpages and take pride in their work. We have found that students routinely invest more time and care in writing a Webpage than in writing an essay or report. The visual dimension of the Web document gives students a new route into composing an overall sense of their text, and that overview can help them compose a more conventional print text as well. Even when you don't teach in a computer lab, students can gain from designing a text as a Webpage by sketching it on paper. Like the storyboard approach, this method of envisioning a text begins to move students along the road to planning activities.

Activity: Imagine yourself assigned to write a five- to ten-page paper on teaching as a career. Then envision a Webpage that would represent your thinking about your topic, sketching it on paper.

A more social form of prewriting is chatting in a computer environment, such as a listserv, bulletin board, or chatroom or MOO. The email listserv and bulletin board are asynchronous electronic environments, meaning that participants contribute and respond to each other's contributions at different times, while the chatroom or MOO is a synchronous environment that requires contributors to log on at the same time. In either environment, students may "talk about" their ideas for writing in a textual form. It is important, too, that they have access to a transcript of their "talk" when they begin to write their paper. While the genre of chat or email does not look much like a finished product, it is the engagement in discussion of ideas that is important about it, just as journal-writing focuses on regular writing or response rather than finished text. Students engaging in classroom chat or email exchange should not have to worry about editing-- spelling and punctuation are not important for the activity to be successful.

Some particularly useful ways to use electronic environments to generate ideas is to assign role-playing. In role-playing, students are assigned characters or personae that they assume in the chat environment. Students who have finished reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Bridge to Terebithia, The Chocolate War, or The Scarlet Letter might assume the identities of the major characters and members of the community to discuss what has happened in their community. Students may create a dialogue between the characters in different books, for example, the heroines of some conventional fairy tales and the Cinderella of Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted or Cimorene of Patricia C. Wrede's Dealing with Dragons and its sequels.

Another useful prewriting activity, whether face to face or in chat environments, is debating. Students may be assigned or may choose different positions on an issue and argue those positions. Debating requires that they think about their position, gather evidence, and organize their argument--all good ways to generate ideas and plan for writing a text.

Later rereading of an electronic discussion can help students think about their ideas in new ways as well as recall the ideas they've expressed. This kind of interaction always helps students think about the audience for their ideas because they are writing for specific, real people whom they know.

Activity: With a group of other students, select a short literary text to read or reread. Assign roles based on characters in the text to each participant. In an electronic environment, assume the role of your character to discuss an issue or event central to the text.

Portfolio or Journal Activity: Write a short reflective paper on what you learned from the role-playing exercise and why you would or would not like to use this exercise as a classroom assignment.

Role-playing can be used as a solitary prewriting activity as well. A student may imagine himself as a broadcaster on the evening news, reporting on a significant event or issue of the day--or of yesterday. A student writing on an historical event--the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, the bombing of Pearl Harbor--may imagine the story that he would write to communicate the news.

The prewriting phase engages students uncritically in coming up with as many ideas as they can for specific writing tasks. After they've generated ideas--and to varying extents as they've generated ideas--they are ready to evaluate those ideas and to plan how to use them.

Go on to Planning Strategies or return to the Writing Process

By Alice L. Trupe, posted Sept. 7, 2001