Writing Rundown: Prewriting Techniques

Prewriting often gets the short end of the stick with students rushing to get that paper written before its due date. Since many teachers don't require prewriting to be turned in with the paper, many students feel that it's a corner they can cut to save time and launch straight into writing a first draft. In reality, prewriting is actually a great time-saver, particularly when you don't exactly know what you're going to talk about. It helps you to organize your thoughts, as well as make sure your points are clear and your concept isn't too broad or too narrow. Prewriting is especially helpful in situations where you're given a very broad prompt – or even no prompt at all (as was the case with my IB World History term paper, whose prompt consisted of 'Write a paper about something from 20th century world history'!)

Prewriting is usually defined broadly as anything you do before writing your paper, and can take many forms. This blog post will discuss a few of the most common forms and their pros and cons.

The Outline

By far the most common prewriting technique is the Outline. In an outline, you plot out the framework of your paper by first listing the most important or main ideas and then fleshing them out with supporting details. In a well-built, detailed outline, most of the information for the paper will be present, just in sentence fragments or keywords. Outlines are great for making absolutely sure you know where you're going with your paper before you start, and for keeping you on task during the writing process itself. I generally write an outline before I start writing the draft of any paper. However, it's not always the ONLY prewriting technique I use. Outlines work just fine on their own when the topic is relatively straightforward, for things like cause-and-effect relationships or comparison-contrast papers. Outlining is a very linear prewriting form, though, and for some people it's difficult to generate ideas and plans of attack using a linear method (myself included). For us, there are alternate methods.

Clustering (aka “Word Cloud,” aka “Word Net”)

This next technique goes by many names, but the most common are the Clustering technique and the Word Cloud or Word Net. In this technique, you start with one word or concept which you want to be the central focus of your paper. You write that word or concept in the center of a blank piece of paper and draw a circle around it. From there, you begin to free associate, writing down words or concepts that relate to the main word in the areas around it. Each word or concept gets a circle drawn around it, and then gets a line linking it back to the main idea. From each of those related words, more sub-ideas are generated in the same way, written down, and linked to the sub-concept. What makes this technique a favorite of mine is that it works really well for complexly-interconnected concepts. Each time a concept is written down, lines are drawn linking it not just to the main concept, but also to any other related concepts anywhere on the page. This makes it easy to see common threads running through the concept, and to see alternate ways to organize the information. For example, writing my Literature Spotlight on Wuthering Heights I began with a word cloud surrounding the central idea of the title and the idea of “weathering a storm”. As I built the cloud out from that central idea, I found that all of my main points were connected through a single symbol – the lightning striking the house. That symbol started out pretty far down one of the branches of my cloud, but seeing how many of my other points related to it, I decided to make another cloud with that symbol at the center. That second cloud is what eventually became the outline for the essay. Word clouds make it easy to rearrange your information and look for connections beyond the ones you first noticed, and are extremely helpful for spatial/visual learners who think better in geometric or spatial reasoning than in a linear fashion.


Freewriting is the last prewriting technique I'm going to talk about today. Freewriting is not to be confused with launching straight into a first draft – this is a prewriting technique, not a drafting technique. In freewriting, sometimes called “stream-of-consciousness” writing, you put your pen down on a blank piece of paper and just start writing – and you don't stop writing for at least ten or fifteen minutes. Jot down everything that comes to mind, trying to stay on topic but not worrying if you stray. The important thing is that the pen should never stop moving – just write down everything that comes into your head. This exercise attempts to remove the filter that normally exists in your head – and by giving you the freedom to stray off topic, you get around the brain's tendency to self-censor and second-guess itself. When the fifteen minutes are up, go back and read over what you wrote. You'll probably need to synthesize this information into another form of prewriting such as a word cloud or outline before you can use it to write your paper.

The advantage to this kind of prewriting is that you may find yourself writing about aspects of or angles on the topic that you didn't expect. When done correctly, freewriting can get you very deep into your psyche and tell you things about yourself that you weren't aware of. For this reason, I find freewriting to be very useful for a specific kind of writing assignment – one that asks for a deep and personal opinion from the writer. Assignments like the admissions essay required by so many colleges, which challenge the applicant to discuss their dreams and goals or their opinions and beliefs, are particularly well-suited to freewriting. That research paper for history class? Not so much.

So next time you sit down to write a paper, give a few of these a shot. It's always better to be thoroughly organized before you open up that word document, and it's always easier to write when you know what you're writing about.
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