Pre-writing strategies use writing to generate and clarify ideas. While many writers have traditionally created outlines before beginning writing, there are other possible prewriting activities. Five useful strategies are brainstorming, clustering, free writing, looping, and asking the six journalists' questions
Brainstorming, also called listing, is a process of generating a lot of information within a short time by building on the association of previous terms you have mentioned.
- Jot down all the possible terms that emerge from the general topic you are thinking about. This procedure works especially well if you work in a team. All team members can generate ideas, with one member acting as scribe. Don't worry about editing or throwing out what might not be a good idea. Simply write down a lot of possibilities.
- Group the items that you have listed according to arrangements that make sense to you.
- Give each group a label. Now you have a topic with possible points of development.
- Write a sentence about the label you have given the group of ideas. Now you have a topic sentence or possibly a thesis statement.
Clustering is also called mind mapping or idea mapping. It is a strategy that allows you to explore the relationships between ideas.
- Put the subject in the center of a page. Circle or underline it.
- As you think of other ideas, link the new ideas to the central circle with lines.
- As you think of ideas that relate to the new ideas, add to those in the same way.
The result will look like a web on your page. Locate clusters of interest to you, and use the terms you attached to the key ideas as departure points for your paper.
Clustering is especially useful in determining the relationship between ideas. You will be able to distinguish how the ideas fit together, especially where there is an abundance of ideas. Clustering your ideas lets you see them visually in a different way, so that you can more readily understand possible directions your paper may take.
Free-writing is a process of generating a lot of information by writing non-stop. It allows you to focus on a specific topic, but forces you to write so quickly that you are unable to edit any of your ideas.
- Free-write on the assignment or general topic for several 5-10 minutes non-stop. Force yourself to continue writing even if nothing specific comes to mind. This free-writing will include many ideas; at this point, generating ideas is what is important, not the grammar or the spelling.
- After you've finished free-writing, look back over what you have written and highlight the most prominent and interesting ideas; then you can begin all over again, with a tighter focus. You will narrow your topic and, in the process, you will generate several relevant points about the topic.
Looping is a free-writing technique that allows you to increasingly focus your ideas in trying to discover a writing topic. You loop one 5-10 minute free-writing after another, so you have a sequence of free-writings, each more specific than the other. The same rules that apply to free-writing apply to looping: write quickly, do not edit, and do not stop.
Free-write on an assignment for 5-10 minutes. Then, read through your free-writing, looking for interesting topics, ideas, phrases, or sentences. Circle those you find interesting. A variation on looping is to have a classmate circle ideas in your free-writing that interests him or her.
Then free-write again for 5-10 minutes on one of the circled topics. You should end up with a more specific free-writing about a particular topic.
Loop your free-writing again, circling another interesting topic, idea, phrase, or sentence. When you have finished four or five rounds of looping, you will begin to have specific information that indicates what you are thinking about a particular topic. You may even have the basis for a tentative thesis or an improved idea for an approach to your assignment when you have finished.
The Journalists' Questions
Journalists traditionally ask six questions when they are writing assignments, 5 W's and 1 H: Who?, What?, Where?, When?, Why?, How? You can use these questions to explore the topic you are writing about for an assignment. A key to using the journalists' questions is to make them flexible enough to account for the specific details of your topic. For instance, if your topic is the rise and fall of the Puget Sound tides and its effect on salmon spawning, you may have very little to say about Who? if your focus doesn't account for human involvement. On the other hand, some topics may be heavy on the Who?, especially if human involvement is a crucial part of the topic. Possible generic questions you can ask using the six journalists' questions follow:
Who are the participants? Who is affected? Who are the primary actors? Who are the secondary actors?
What is the topic? What is the significance of the topic? What is the basic problem? What are the issues?
Where does the activity take place? Where does the problem or issue have its source? At what place is the cause or effect of the problem most visible?
When is the issue most apparent? (past? present? future?) When did the issue or problem develop? What historical forces helped shape the problem or issue and at what point in time will the problem or issue culminate in a crisis? When is action needed to address the issue or problem?
Why did the issue or problem arise? Why is it (your topic) an issue or problem at all? Why did the issue or problem develop in the way that it did?
How is the issue or problem significant? How can it be addressed? How does it affect the participants? How can the issue or problem be resolved?
The journalists' questions are a powerful way to develop a great deal of information about a topic very quickly. Learning to ask the appropriate questions about a topic takes practice, however. At times during writing an assignment, you may wish to go back and ask the journalists' questions again to clarify important points that may be getting lost in your planning and drafting.
Prewriting exercises provide structure and meaning to your topic and research before you begin to write a draft. Using prewriting strategies to organize and generate ideas prevents a writer from becoming frustrated or stuck. Just as you would prepare to give a public speech on note cards, it is also necessary to write ideas down for a rough draft. After all, your audience is counting on a well-organized presentation of interesting facts, a storyline, or whatever you are required to write about. Prewriting exercises can help you focus your ideas, determine a topic, and develop a logical structure for your paper.
Brainstorming: It's often helpful to set a time limit on this; plan to brainstorm for ten minutes, for example. This will help you focus and keep you from feeling overwhelmed. This is especially helpful when you're still trying to narrow or focus your topic. You'll start with a blank page, and you'll write down as many ideas about your topic as you can think of. Ask yourself questions as you write: Why am I doing this? Why do I like this? Why don't I like this? What is the most interesting thing about this field or issue? How would my audience feel about this? What can we learn from this? How can we benefit from knowing more? When time is up, read over your list, and add anything else that you think of. Are there patterns or ideas that keep coming up? These are often clues about what is most important about this topic or issue.
Freewriting: A time limit is also useful in this exercise. Using a blank piece of paper or your word-processing program, summarize your topic in a sentence and keep writing. Write anything that comes to your mind and don't stop. Don't worry about grammar or spelling, and if you get stuck, just write whatever comes to mind. Continue until your time limit is up, and when it's time to stop, read over what you've written and start underlining the most important or relevant ideas. This will help you to identify your most important ideas, and you'll often be surprised by what you come up with.
Listing: In this exercise, you'll simply list all of your ideas. This will help you when you are mapping or outlining your ideas, because as you use an idea, you can cross it off your list.
Clustering: This is another way to record your thoughts and observations for a paragraph or essay after you have chosen a topic. First draw a circle near the center of a blank piece of paper, and in that circle, write the subject of your essay or paragraph. Then in a ring around the main circle, write down the main parts or subtopics within the main topic. Circle each of these, and then draw a line connecting them to the main circle in the middle. Then think of other ideas, facts, or issues that relate to each of the main parts/subtopics, circle these, and draw lines connecting them to the relevant part/subtopic. Repeat this process with each new circle until you run out of ideas. This is a great way of identifying the parts within your topic, which will provide content for the paper, and it also helps you discover how these parts relate to each other.
Outlining Your Paper
An outline is a plan for the paper that will help you organize and structure your ideas in a way that effectively communicates them to your reader and supports your thesis statement. You'll want to work on an outline after you've completed some of the other exercises, since having an idea of what you'll say in the paper will make it much easier to write. An outline can be very informal; you might simply jot down your thesis statement, what the introduction will discuss, what you'll say in the body of the paper, and what you want to include in the conclusion.
Remember that all writing — even academic writing — needs to tell a story: the introduction often describes what has already happened (the background or history of your topic), the body paragraphs might explain what is currently happening and what needs to happen (this often involves discussing a problem, the need for a solution, and possible solutions), and the conclusion usually looks to the future by focusing on what is likely to happen (what might happen next, and whether a solution is likely). If you work on telling a story in the paper, it will help you to structure it in a way that the reader can easily follow and understand.
Sometimes you may be required (or you may want) to develop a more formal outline with numbered and lettered headings and subheadings. This will help you to demonstrate the relationships between the ideas, facts, and information within the paper. Here's an example of what this might look like:
- Fact that grabs audience attention
- Background/history of issue/problem/topic
- Thesis statement
Current state of issue/problem/topic
- Topic/claim sentence: Make a claim that explains what the paragraph is about
- Evidence that supports/explains the claim (this is often research from secondary sources)
- Analysis that explains how the evidence supports your claim and why this matters to the paper's thesis statement
The need for a solution or course of action
- Possible solution
- What might happen now?
- Is a solution likely?
- What's the future of the issue?
Your outline will contain more detailed information, and if there are certain areas that the assignment requires you to cover, then you can modify the outline to include these. You can also expand it if you're writing a longer research paper: the discussion of the problem might need several paragraphs, for example, and you might discuss the pros and cons of several possible solutions.