Prewriting

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No matter what you are writing, it can be difficult to begin without first taking time to organize your thoughts. This organization is often called prewriting.

Why Prewrite?

You could probably start writing your business letter, research paper, or short story immediately without taking time to think through it and plan; however, prewriting significantly decreases the amount of time and effort it takes to write well. By making a list of your thoughts, you eliminate time wasted in the writing process, and you can quickly get your points down while your thoughts are flowing. Taking time to stop and research or think of where you are going can slow you down and make your writing seem disjointed. You also eliminate extra writing you don’t actually need to make your point by planning what you will say ahead of time. This means that you don’t waste time writing unnecessary information, editing it, and eventually deleting it.

Writing is scary for many people, especially when they aren’t comfortable with the type of writing they are doing. Prewriting is a great way to keep that blank page from scaring or frustrating you when you sit down to work.

What is Prewriting?

Prewriting is any step you take to prepare yourself for writing. It is all about finding what is going to be the most helpful to your process. There are many methods, and you can use whatever is the most comfortable and productive for you and the type of writing you are doing. It can be as simple as putting a few points you want to cover on a sticky note, so that you don’t forget, or as complex as creating a very detailed outline. Choose the method that feels the most natural and seems to fit the type of writing you are doing. Also note that many people do several types of prewriting in steps, so feel free to try more than one for a project if you think it will help.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming is generating as many ideas as possible on your subject. Many people use brainstorming as the first step in the writing process whether or not they go on to do other types of prewriting.

The first step in brainstorming is to simply think about your topic. Think about what the purpose of your writing is. Think about who will read it. Think about what you want readers to take away from it. Make notes as you go. They don’t have to be formal notes with complete sentences. You can write single words that make you think of your topic if you want. The point is that you are listing whatever comes to mind about your topic. Maybe you have a list of arguments you want to make for your research paper. Maybe you know what tone you want your business letter to take.

In the brainstorming stage, nothing should be off-limits. Whatever you think of in regards to your writing project should be written in your notes, and you can select the most appropriate and feasible ideas later. You want to get as many ideas as possible without censoring your thoughts in order to stay in a creative and productive flow.

You may choose to stop when you feel like you have enough ideas for your project, or you may choose to do timed brainstorming. Many people set a timer for ten or fifteen minutes and come up with ideas until the time stops. This keeps you from procrastinating by spending too much time on brainstorming.

Once you have a list of ideas, review them. You may choose to highlight, circle, or somehow mark the most important ideas that you find in your brainstorming, or maybe rewrite the best ideas on a separate list. Once you have identified your most important ideas, you should start to look through them for themes. Themes that show up often are usually topics you will want to focus on in more detail than ones that do not. In order to determine how your ideas are related or how they can most effectively be organized, many people move from brainstorming to mind mapping.

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a visual representation of your ideas on a topic. For many people this means that they create a literal map of their thoughts. You have probably seen an example of this. A common format is to write your topic in the center of the page, and then draw lines from that topic to other thoughts from your brainstorming. You can do this by writing all your ideas and trying to connect them with lines as logic fits, or you may choose to make a more organized map with categories and subcategories for thoughts.

Many people will circle their main topic in the center and then find the most common themes in their notes, which then become large bubbles connected to the main thought. After this, they usually draw other smaller bubbles connecting to each point that supports the category. You can keep dividing your thoughts down into smaller and smaller categories until you feel you have a good grasp of how your writing will be organized. Some people only go as far as large categories, but you may choose to make many subcategories depending on the topic.

Mind mapping is a great way to determine how your thoughts on your subject connect, which can then help you create a detailed outline.

Outlining

Outlining is a more formal technique of arranging your thoughts on your topic. Some people skip brainstorming and mind mapping to move straight to outlining. This can be worth doing if you already have a good idea of what you want to write, but in many cases, outlining is most effective after the previous two steps have been completed. Outlining can be very detailed, meaning that before you outline, you need to have a thorough understanding of your subject and the points you want to make.

Outlining can be flexible, but generally speaking, an outline is best started with a thesis or topic sentence. This should be one sentence that encompasses the entire purpose of what you are writing. This may be an argument in an academic essay or a proposal in a business letter. By starting with a thesis sentence at the top of your outline, you know you stay on target with your ideas, because everything you put on your outline needs to somehow relate to that thesis statement. This keeps you from writing on unrelated topics.

After the thesis, most outlines use a number or bulleting system that breaks the topic down into main points, followed by supporting points. If your outline is very informal, simply creating a few bullet points may be enough for your prewriting. If that is the case, you should make a quick outline and then proceed to writing.

If your topic is very complex, or you are expected to submit a formal outline with your writing, such as in some classes, your outline will probably be very formal and follow this general template:

Thesis: This is where your thesis statement goes.
Introduction – This is just a note to remind you about writing the introduction

  1. First Main Point

    1. Supporting Point
      1. Evidence
      2. Evidence
    2. Supporting Point
      1. Evidence
      2. Evidence
  2. Second Main Point

    1. Supporting Point
      1. Evidence
      2. Evidence
    2. Supporting Point
      1. Evidence
      2. Evidence
  3. Third Main Point

    1. Supporting Point
      1. Evidence
      2. Evidence
    2. Supporting Point
      1. Evidence
      2. Evidence

Conclusion – This is the reminder about your conclusion

You may have more or fewer points or pieces of evidence depending on the complexity of your topic and scope of the writing. Depending on your purpose and expectations, your outline may be even further divided into more detailed points beyond the lower case roman numerals.

To use this form of outline, you simply plug in your thoughts and topics into the template. By using a rigid template, you make sure that you have enough evidence to support your argument. The outline lets you visually see if one point needs more attention to be as well supported as other points. Additionally, by seeing every detail in clean categories, you will be able to move thoughts on your outline quickly in order to reorganize your writing for clarity and logic.

When completing your outline, there are a few expectations as far as style that will be dictated by your industry’s expectations. For example, academic papers may require that no point may have a sub point unless you have at least two pieces of evidence supporting your idea. This means that every level of indention has at least two pieces of information, or else your concept cannot be further subdivided. Some industries have specific formatting guidelines for outlines as well, so make sure you check your industry’s standards.

Once you have created a detailed outline, it is easy to write your paper. You simply write out your thesis statement and construct an introduction around it. Next, you move on to your first point and write all the supporting evidence in order of the outline. Then you move on to the next point, and so on. By following an outline, you know exactly what is coming next in your paper, and you can easily write a solid first draft without wasting time and effort struggling to figure out how to organize your paper.

How to Choose

There are many other options for prewriting that will help you write your paper, so you should try experimenting with different ideas and find what works for you. Many writers use mixtures of different styles, while others use exclusively one. You may find that you are more comfortable with one type of prewriting over others, and you may also find that a formal outline won’t help you with your business letter. Prewriting is about you figuring out what will make the writing process easier, so feel free to experiment with different types of prewriting.