7.2 Getting Started

Preview

This section of Ch. 7 will introduce the following topics:

  • the purpose of prewriting
  • four types of prewriting
  • choosing a good topic

If you think a blank sheet of paper or a blinking cursor on a blank computer screen is scary, you are not alone. Beginning to write can be intimidating. However, experienced writers remind themselves that writing is a process. Any big project can be accomplished if you take it one step at a time.

Step 1: Prewriting

Prewriting is the first stage of the writing process. Prewriting can help you get started if you don’t know where to begin, it can help you narrow a topic that is too broad, and it can help you explore what you know about your chosen topic and find interesting examples and details to use in your paper. It is just brainstorming in writing.

We get our ideas from many places: what we read, what we hear, what we see and experience, our imagination. Prewriting helps us turn all of that information into words on a page. Prewriting is a way to think about what you think, to break through mental blocks, to get ideas out of your head and down on paper so you have something with which to work.

There are a few, very simple rules for prewriting:

Tip

If you get interrupted while prewriting, stop and start over later. Don’t try to continue a prewrite. The value comes from writing for 10 minutes uninterrupted.
  • Use pencil and paper or a computer, whichever allows you to write more quickly.
  • Write your topic at the top of the page to remind yourself to stick to it. If you wander off, just look at your topic and wander back.
  • Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, repetition, or exact wording. Your goal is to simply get as much information on the page as you can.
  • Write for ten minutes.  More is unnecessary; less is not enough time to find unexpected ideas.
  • Don’t stop writing once you start. Keep pushing your brain to come up with one more idea and one more idea. That is when you find interesting and even surprising stuff.

Four types of prewriting are explained here: Freewriting, Questioning, Listing, and Clustering. Try them all, then use the technique that works best for your thinking process or for the specific assignment you’ve been given.

Freewriting

Freewriting is when you jot down thoughts that come to mind in rough sentences or phrases. Try not to doubt or question your ideas. Allow yourself to write freely.  Don’t be self-conscious. Nobody is going to grade this. Once you start writing without limitations, you may find you have more to say than you thought. If you get stuck, look at your topic again and re-start.

Here is an example of Freewriting on the topic of the media. Notice the writer isn’t worrying about grammar, fragments, or even staying on topic. She is just writing down everything that comes to mind about the media.

Example of freewriting

Listing

Listing is like Freewriting, but instead of writing across the page, you write from top to bottom, listing topics or details, one after another, without trying to sort or organize.

Here is an example of Listing.  Notice the ideas bounce from one to another, then off in a different direction.  That’s the point: to get as many ideas on the page as possible.

Example of a list about "the media"

Exercise 1

In your notebook, prewrite about the broad topic of Mt. Hood Community College, using either Freewriting or Listing. Follow the directions above and write without stopping for ten minutes.

After you finish, read over what you wrote. Find a few things that stand out as a narrower topic that might make a good essay. Circle them.

Questioning

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

In everyday situations, we pose these questions to get information. Who will be my partner for the project? What do I need to get at the grocery store? Why is my car making that noise? We seek answers to these questions to gain knowledge, to better understand our experiences, and to plan for the future.

In prewriting, answering these questions can help you recall ideas you already have and generate new thoughts about a topic.

To do Questioning, write “who, what, when, where, why, how” down the left-hand side of a sheet of paper, leaving space between the words. Then, in the blank space, answer the questions as they relate to your topic in as many ways as you can. Jump down to answer a question, then jump back up to answer a different one. Fill up the page.

Here is an example of Questioning on the topic of the media:

Questions Responses
Who? Students, teachers, parents, politicians, employees–almost everyone uses media. Who creates media? Journalists, reporters, big companies, political groups. Who else? I guess anyone who wants to share information with others.
What? Lots of things. Television, radio, e-mail (?), newspapers, magazines, books. Is that good? Well, information is good. But how do we know if it is true? I guess we don’t. Maybe we have to know more about who is writing the information. Is Dear Abby media? Are advertisements media? What about false advertising?
When? Media has been around a long time, but seems a lot more important now. Is that because of computers? When did the news move from newspapers to TV to online?
Where? The media is almost everywhere now. In homes, at work, in cars, on cell phones, even on watches and glasses!
Why? Hmm. This is a good question. I don’t know why there is mass media. Maybe we have it because we have the technology. But even in the 1700s we had newspapers, I think.
How? Well, media is possible because of technology but I don’t know how they all work! How does a news article go from the event to my computer. Do I need to know? Probably.

Exercise 2

In your notebook, do a Questioning prewrite on the narrowed topic you identified in Exercise 1. Come up with as many details as you can.

  • Put the narrowed topic at the top of the page.
  • Write the question words down the left.
  • Answer the questions in as many ways as you can for ten minutes.
  • After, read what you wrote. Circle ideas that might be usable.

If you succeeded with this prewrite, you should have a good topic for an essay and lots of details to help you explain your point.

If that hasn’t happened yet, repeat one of the types of prewriting above, or try the fourth type listed below.

Clustering

Clustering allows you to visualize related ideas. Many writers like this method because it shows how ideas connect.

To do Clustering, write your general topic in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Then brainstorm specific ideas around it and use lines or arrows to connect them. Add as many ideas and sub-ideas as you can think of. Write for ten minutes; fill the page.

Note: You can do this on a computer (like the example below) but it’s much easier on paper. On a computer, you spend too much time making little circles and choosing colors. On paper, you spend the time coming up with new ideas.

Example of clustering

Prewriting can be used when you begin a project to brainstorm possible topics.  Or it can be used to come up with details on a topic to expand what you might want to say. If you hit a dead end on your first prewrite, go do something else for a while (math homework or the laundry), then try again, using a different type of prewriting. The goal of prewriting is to start writing, to get information out of your head and onto a piece of paper where you can work with it.

Choosing a Topic

Tip

If a topic is not working, do another prewrite to find a better one or to find more details.

Before you decide firmly on your topic, put it through a simple test. Answer these questions:

  • Am I interested in this topic? Would my audience be interested?
  • Do I have prior knowledge of or experience with this topic, or do I have the time to learn more about it?
  • Is this topic narrow enough to dig into deeply, but large enough to provide me with ideas to explore?
  • Does it meet the assignment requirements? (Go back and carefully re-read the assignment instructions.)

If you answer “yes” to all the questions, you are ready for Step 2 of the writing process.

Hopefully, once you have completed some prewriting exercises, you will feel less anxious about starting a paper. With a few ideas on paper, writers are often more comfortable continuing to write.

Takeaways

  • Prewriting is the first step in successful writing. Don’t skip it!
  • Prewriting is the transfer of ideas from abstract thoughts into words, phrases, and sentences on paper.
  • Types of prewriting include Freewriting, Listing, Questioning, and Clustering.

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1, 2, 3 Write! by Gay Monteverde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.