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Prewriting Strategies

Five useful strategies.

Pre-writing strategies use writing to generate and clarify ideas. While many writers have traditionally created outlines before beginning writing, there are several other effective prewriting activities. We often call these prewriting strategies “brainstorming techniques.” Five useful strategies are listing, clustering, freewriting, looping, and asking the six journalists' questions. These strategies help you with both your invention and organization of ideas, and they can aid you in developing topics for your writing.

Listing is a process of producing a lot of information within a short time by generating some broad ideas and then building on those associations for more detail with a bullet point list. Listing is particularly useful if your starting topic is very broad, and you need to narrow it down.

  • Jot down all the possible terms that emerge from the general topic you are working on. This procedure works especially well if you work in a team. All team members can generate ideas, with one member acting as scribe. Do not worry about editing or throwing out what might not be a good idea. Simply write down as many possibilities as you can.
  • Group the items that you have listed according to arrangements that make sense to you. Are things thematically related?
  • Give each group a label. Now you have a narrower 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 .

Listing example. Bullet point list of topic ideas: online education, gentrification, data privacy, vice taxes, and vaping.

Clustering, also called mind mapping or idea mapping, 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, write them on the page surrounding the central idea. 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.

Clustering example of a middle circle with several connected dialog boxes on the sides  June 22, 2022 at 12:59 AM


Freewriting is a process of generating a lot of information by writing non-stop in full sentences for a predetermined amount of time. 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.

  • Freewrite on the assignment or general topic for five to ten minutes non-stop. Force yourself to continue writing even if nothing specific comes to mind (so you could end up writing “I don’t know what to write about” over and over until an idea pops into your head. This is okay; the important thing is that you do not stop writing). This freewriting will include many ideas; at this point, generating ideas is what is important, not the grammar or the spelling.
  • After you have finished freewriting, 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 (see looping). You will narrow your topic and, in the process, you will generate several relevant points about the topic.

Freewriting example. Lined paper with text reading: The first thing that came to mind when we got this assignment was to write about basketball. I've always loved both playing and watching the sport. I don't know what aspect of it to focus on though. I don't know what to write here. I'm looking around the room now. Oh, the student next to me is wearing a Bulls t-shirt. That's my favorite team! Maybe I could write about the history of the Bulls for my essay.

Looping is a freewriting technique that allows you to focus your ideas continually while trying to discover a writing topic. After you freewrite for the first time, identify a key thought or idea in your writing, and begin to freewrite again, with that idea as your starting point. You will loop one 5-10 minute freewriting after another, so you have a sequence of freewritings, each more specific than the last. The same rules that apply to freewriting apply to looping: write quickly, do not edit, and do not stop.

Loop your freewriting as many times as necessary, circling another interesting topic, idea, phrase, or sentence each time. 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.

Looping example. On a first piece of lined paper, it has text reading: "The first thing that came to mind when we got this assignment was to write about basketball. I've always loved both playing and watching the sport. I don't know what aspect of it to focus on though. I don't know what to write here. I'm looking around the room now. Oh, the student next to me is wearing a Bulls t-shirt. That's my favorite team! Maybe I could write about the history of the Bulls for my essay." Bulls is circled. There is an arrow pointing towards a second piece of lined paper, which has text reading: "What I know about the history of the Bulls is..."

The Journalists' Questions

Journalists traditionally ask six questions when they are writing assignments that are broken down into five W's and one H:  Who? ,  What? ,  Where? ,  When? ,  Why? , and  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 does not 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.

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.

Possible generic questions you can ask using the six journalists' questions follow:

  • Who? Who are the participants? Who is affected? Who are the primary actors? Who are the secondary actors?
  • What? What is the topic? What is the significance of the topic? What is the basic problem? What are the issues related to that problem?
  • Where? 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? When is the issue most apparent? (in the 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? 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? 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 example: Has a black chalkboard with a question mark and the words who, what, when, where, why, and how written on it.

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Prewriting Strategies: 9 Proven Steps With Tips, Examples & Worksheets

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Prewriting strategies are a number of techniques you can use to prepare yourself for the actual writing process . Writers who don’t use prewriting strategies purposefully set themselves up for failure. These writers either won’t finish their writing projects and if they do, their work won’t be logical to readers .

You can avoid such disasters by falling back on processes countless successful writers and authors use. In this article, we will discuss what prewriting is, and the 9-step techniques on how to pre-write successfully We will also go over some examples, and round off with worksheets that you can use to master this process.

👉Check Out Our Complete Guide: The Writing Process: 6 Steps With Tips, Examples, And Worksheets

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pre writing essay sample

What is Prewriting?

Prewriting refers to a set of techniques writers use to ready themselves to tackle a project. These steps are not set in stone, and a writer can use any combination of them.

Other people have written about your topic, which means you need to find out what they are saying. You don’t want an article or book that’s all over the place, so you might end up using a number of techniques to narrow down your focus. These are just some of the things that happen during the prewriting phase.

👉Head over to our guide to prewriting to learn more.

What is the Purpose of Prewriting?

Unlike plotters (writers who write with a plan), many writers who claim they can write without planning (called pantsers ) still do some form of prewriting. Some reasons this stage of the writing process is important include:

  • Prewriting helps you come up with ideas – you ideally want to know what you are going to write about before starting.
  • Prewriting narrows down your focus – vague and generic ideas have the problem of being too broad and not being helpful to anyone.
  • Prewriting forces you to find out what other writers in the same field have to say – the last thing you want to do is write about a topic that has been covered before.
  • Prewriting helps you check if your topic is worth pursuing before wasting your time – you don’t want to work on an idea your target audience is not interested in reading about.
  • Prewriting can help you check if your ideas are logical and coherent.

👉 See our guide on 15+ reasons you should be prewriting for your next book !

The Prewriting Process Steps

Prewriting has several steps you can use. The good news is that you don’t need to follow every single step. You just have to go with what works for you. Here are some prewriting strategies you can use next time you have a writing project:

  • Researching
  • Brainstorming
  • Clustering (Mind Mapping)
  • Freewriting
  • Journalistic Questioning
  • Storyboarding

Any one of these steps can help you as you start a writing project. Use any combination that works for you.

#1. Researching

Researching is the first step for many writing projects. Start by reading other works on the topic, gathering resources, and taking notes. This helps you to get a sense of what your project should look like and can help spark ideas.

You can also start by talking to experts in the field or getting feedback from those who are knowledgeable about the topic. As a writer or author, try to think beyond what is already known and find unique ways of approaching the topic at hand.

Research is very important in the writing process . If you use incorrect information in your project or book, you may come across as ignorant and lazy to your readers. And this could potentially ruin your career, seeing as readers have no reason to trust anything else you write in the future.

👉 Head over to our comprehensive guide on the research process to learn more tips on how to research for your book!

#2. Brainstorming

Your initial idea is not always the one you end up writing about. In addition, you might have a vague idea of what you want to write, but nothing specific. This is where brainstorming comes in.

pre writing essay sample

Brainstorming is a part of prewriting where you come up with as many ideas as you can. It doesn’t matter if many of the ideas are unreasonable, difficult, or not 100% related to your topic. The main aim here is to generate as many ideas as possible. Relax and don’t worry about being accurate yet.

Fiction authors might for instance brainstorm various endings for the same short story. Here are some guidelines you can follow when brainstorming:

  • Be in an environment that is most conducive for work.
  • Grab a paper and pen. Text editing software will also do.
  • Set a timer.
  • Write down anything that comes to mind.

Brainstorming is not compulsory. It might not be your cup of tea. That said, writers who don’t brainstorm are more likely to get stuck when their single idea doesn’t turn out to be as good as they thought it would be. In addition, some of the ideas you generate during this process can easily become subtopics and subheadings in your final piece.

Brainstorming Example

Here are some random ideas associated with digital currencies:

  • Internet money
  • Online trading
  • International trading
  • Centralized currency
  • Government control
  • Crypto apps
  • Exchange rate

Brainstorming is a helpful process that can ensure you have loads of ideas to choose from.

Set a timer for ten minutes. Brainstorm the following until each timer goes off:

  • The national unemployment rate.
  • Your country’s president.
  • Disney World
  • Your favorite film.
  • Game of Thrones

Unless you are working with a detailed topic brief, your initial idea might be extremely broad. Listing helps you narrow down things and develop more ideas.

pre writing essay sample

Listing involves noting down everything associated with your topic. These ideas can then be categorized by how related they are. These categories can then become the area your writing will focus on. The various ideas that fall under each category can become your research questions/subheadings.

Follow these steps when listing:

  • Have a pen and paper or text editor at hand.
  • Write down everything you can think of that’s associated with your topic.
  • Put related ideas under one category.
  • Write down a sentence about each idea.

While this step is not mandatory, it is good for narrowing down your research area and defining discussion points. A broad topic that is not broken down into manageable bits can lead to an article or book that is so broad, it helps no one.

Prewriting Listing Example

We’re first going to list down some ideas related to digital currencies, categorize them, and finally write sentences about some of them.

Digital currency ideas : What is digital currency? How to get digital currency? Good thing about digital currency. Bad thing about digital currency. Who uses digital currency? Where to buy digital currency.

Category 1, introduction to digital currencies: What is digital currency? Who uses digital currency?

Category 2 , getting started with digital currencies: How to buy digital currency. Where to buy digital currency.

Category 3 , pros and cons of digital currencies: Good thing about digital currency. Bad thing about digital currency.

The following are sentences to expand on the ideas from category 1:

What is digital currency: “Digital currencies are money-like assets that are managed over the internet.”

Who uses digital currency: “People weary of unstable governmental economic policies can use digital currencies.”

  • Write as many words as you can associate with the term “books.”
  • Categorize the following words into related ideas: iPhone, Samsung, Windows, Nokia, headphones, charger, Windows, Android, and headphones.
  • Choose any of the categories from 1 or 2, and write a sentence on each idea in that category.
  • Use the listing techniques above on a topic of your own choosing.
  • Listing is a good technique for writers who struggle to narrow down topics into manageable ideas.

#4. Clustering or mind mapping

Not all ideas you come up with will have anything to do with your topic. It’s very easy to be diverted into areas that have nothing to do with what you are working on when conducting research. Mind mapping can help you stay on track.

pre writing essay sample

You can either use a chart or plain text editor/paper to create a mind map. Your main topic will be at the center. You can then write other ideas around the main topic while trying to establish links to the main topic. Your ideas can have sub-ideas, those sub-ideas can have their own sub-ideas, and so on.

Non-fiction writers will love mind maps because they can provide a wide pool of topics. On the other hand, fiction authors can use mind maps to generate subplot ideas.

Follow these steps to create a mind map:

  • Create a chart or grab a large piece of paper.
  • Write your main topic at the center.
  • Write down other ideas around the topic, and draw lines to link them back to the main topic.
  • Each idea can have sub-ideas linking back to it.
  • Anything that cannot be linked to a parent idea should go.

It’s easy to become sidelined by ideas that have nothing to do with what you are writing about. This is especially true if you’re passionate about the subject. You’ll leave your readers puzzled at best, or make yourself look incompetent at worst if your writing is filled with vaguely related ideas. A mind map can help you avoid this.

Mind Mapping Example

Here is an example to demonstrate a mind map using our digital currency example.

Main topic: digital currency.

Ideas : centralized banking and crypto.

Ideas related to crypto : crypto mining and cryptography.

Idea related to crypto mining : high-powered computer.

Mind maps are a crucial technique that can help you focus your writing.

  • Create a mind map for financial literacy.
  • Create a mind map for comedy.
  • Create a mind map for music.
  • Create a mind map for any idea that might occur to you.

#5. Freewriting

Some writers are not good at meticulous planning techniques such as mind maps. Their ideas only flow when they are writing. Freewriting is the best technique for such authors.

pre writing essay sample

Freewriting is simply going with the flow. You can pick an idea, and then write as much as you can about it. Don’t worry about grammar or coherency just yet. You can then go back and pick out the good ideas when you are done. This process can be repeated as many times as you need to.

Fiction authors can also use this technique to get a feel for the story. You could pick a few random ideas, and write a page about each.

Here are some useful steps for people who prefer freewriting:

  • Be in an environment conducive to writing.
  • Have a pen and paper/text editor at the ready.
  • Pick a topic.
  • Write as much as you can about the topic until the timer goes off.
  • Read through what you wrote, and highlight important ideas you might want to explore.

For writers who are not good with techniques such as mind mapping and listing, freewriting has many advantages. Not using it means you’ll end up relying on techniques that don’t work for you. This could ultimately negatively impact your final written piece.

Freewriting Example

The following paragraph demonstrates freewriting:

“Digital currencies are money-like assets on the internet. Anyone can own them. They are very good to have. Digital currencies help us become independent from centralized banking. Examples include cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. The legality of digital currencies is still shaky in most countries. This is because there is no controlling body.”

Here is the same passage, but with an asterisk (*) in front of an idea that can be further explored:

“Digital currencies are *money-like assets on the internet. Anyone can own them. They are very good to have. Digital currencies help us become independent from *centralized banking . Examples include *cryptocurrencies like *bitcoin . The *legality of digital currencies is still shaky in most countries. This is because there is no *controlling body .”

Freewriting is a powerful technique that can help you generate ideas you’ve never considered.

Set a five-minute timer for each of the following exercises:

  • Freewrite about soccer.
  • Freewrite about your favorite book or movie.
  • Freewrite about any musician of your choice.
  • Freewrite about any topic of your choice.

#6. Looping

Looping is closely related to freewriting and shares some characteristics with mind mapping.

pre writing essay sample

Looping is a process where you freely write ad expand your topic. You then pick an idea from what you wrote and start a new freewriting session. You can continue to pick yet another idea from the latest freewriting session and repeat the process as many times as necessary. A writer could easily end up doing five or more sessions.

Follow these steps if you want to loop:

  • Set a timer for five minutes.
  • Write as much as you can.
  • Pick an idea from what you just wrote.
  • Reset the timer again.
  • Start a fresh freewriting session using the idea from the first session.
  • Repeat as many times as you need to.

Looping Example

Here is our example from the previous step:

“Digital currencies are *money-like assets on the internet. Anyone can own them. They are very good to have. Digital currencies help us become independent from *centralized banks . Examples include *cryptocurrencies like *bitcoin. The *legality of digital currencies is still shaky in most countries. This is because there is no *controlling body.”

Here is another paragraph if we were to start a new freewriting session using centralized banking:

“ Central banks are institutions that manage national/union *currencies. They are also known as central banks or reserve banks. Some are *independent from the government others are not. Their responsibility include creating currency policies, determining *rates, and *managing aspects of the *economy.”

  • Freewrite a paragraph for each of the words highlighted with an asterisk.
  • Pick any of your new paragraphs, and do at least two more freewriting sessions.
  • Freewrite any topic of your choice.
  • Apply what you just learned about looping on your session from 3.

#7. Journalistic questioning

Journalists write and provide information for a living. It should therefore come as no surprise they have great techniques when it comes to writing.

pre writing essay sample

Journalistic questions seek to establish basic facts. This can include involved people, the reason the topic is important, and how the issue being addressed works. Using these questions will at the very least let you know if your idea is worth pursuing. You are good to go if you can answer all or most of these questions.

Journalists call their questions the 5w’s and 1h. They are:

  • Who : Who cares, and who does the topic affect?
  • What : What exactly is happening? What do you want to write about?
  • Where : Which locations are relevant to what you are writing about? Is the topic country/region specific?
  • When : In which time period is your project set? Which histories and time periods are relevant in order to get a fuller picture?
  • Why : What is behind the topic? Why is it happening?
  • How : How can people do anything about what you are writing?

You are in trouble if you cannot answer many of these questions. For instance, failure to answer “who” probably means you don’t have a target audience, failure to answer “why” might mean you haven’t properly done your research, failure to answer “how” comes across as if you don’t have solutions, etc.

Journalistic Questioning Example

Here is how we might answer the 5w’s and 1h for our digital currency example:

  • Who? People who want to learn more about digital currencies.
  • What? There is a growing interest in digital currencies. This article will provide some basics.
  • Where? This is relevant to people in places where they don’t necessarily trust banking institutions.
  • When? : This article is relevant for 2022. The financial crisis of 2008 is an example of how financial institutions can collapse, taking the currency down with them.
  • Why? : There is a growing mistrust of governments and financial institutions. People need alternative methods of protecting their wealth.
  • How? : People can educate themselves using this article, before signing up for various digital currency services.

The 5W’s and 1H are a set of questions that can make or break your topic.

  • Read a newspaper article. See if you can identify the 5w’s and 1h.
  • Think about your favorite book. Try to come up with the 5w’s and 1h for the book.
  • Answer the journalistic questions if your topic was: “Write a 750-word review of your favorite film to convince people to go and watch it.”
  • Answer the journalistic questions for any topic of your choice.

#8. Outlining

Knowing what exactly you are going to talk about from beginning to end is one of the main goals of prewriting. That’s why after you’ve researched, brainstormed, asked yourself journalistic questions, etc., one of the last steps is creating an outline.

pre writing essay sample

An outline is a description of everything you are going to cover in your book or article. Make it as detailed as you want it to be. Some writers will outline every single point and paragraph, while others will just create headings and subheadings. Others might just jot down the introductory points, middle, and conclusion.

Novelists will find outlines extremely useful. They can help you plan and view the entire novel before starting your pros.

Here are some guidelines you might find useful when outlining:

  • Write your main idea at the top.
  • Create subheadings.
  • List what you want to cover under each subheading in bullet form.
  • Be as detailed as you think is necessary.

Not having an outline can make things difficult for you when writer’s block strikes. The last thing you want is to have your mind go blank when you have a looming deadline. Outlines also help you to check if your ideas are logical and smoothly flow from one to the next before you start writing.

Outlining Example

Here is a sample outline for our digital currency article:

  • H2: What are digital currencies?
  • H2: The history of digital currencies.
  • H3: Bitcoin
  • H3: Dogecoin.
  • H3: Ethereum.
  • H2: how to get started.
  • H2: warnings.
  • Conclusion: [Summarize article]

Outlining is a process that can be your best friend when your mind goes blank.

Create outlines for the following topics:

  • Covid-19 symptoms.
  • The 2022 FIFA World cup.
  • Any topic of your choice.

#9. Storyboarding

Visually oriented people sometimes struggle with techniques such as freewriting and looping. Storyboarding is the best choice for these writers.

pre writing essay sample

Storyboarding is a visual prewriting technique that has its foundations in film production. Authors of fiction will find it extremely useful. You can build a board with various events you want to cover. You can then connect these events in sequential order.

You can either use a physical board or rely on software such as Trello.

Storyboarding Example

We could have a board called Crypto as part of our digital currency article. We can then create individual cards for each point we want to cover about crypto. So our cards might have titles like:

  • History of crypto
  • Most valuable cryptocurrency
  • Benefits of crypto
  • Disadvantages of crypto
  • What might you call a board that has cards with titles such as carbohydrates, vitamins, proteins, hydrated, and organic?
  • Come up with the names of cards you might add to a board called “online marketing.”
  • Come up with a minimum of five board names.
  • Create at least three cards for each of the boards from 3.

Tips For Developing Your Prewriting Process

If we could sum up the prewriting process in one sentence, it would be: “Be ready to write.” That is all that matters. Most of the prewriting strategies covered in this guide are not compulsory. But you can improve the quality of your writing by following many of them.

Journalistic questions and some sort of outline are the two most crucial steps in prewriting. Leaving them out can mean danger down the road.

FAQs on Prewriting Strategies

Should i follow every single strategy in the prewriting stage.

No. Very few writers follow every step. Some only follow one or two. Others mix them up to create their own unique process. That said, ignoring things like research, outlining, and journalistic questions will only create problems for you down the road.

Are the prewriting strategies to be followed in order?

You don’t need to follow all nine steps. Similarly, those you choose to follow, don’t need to be completed in any specific order. One writer might choose to create a mind map before freewriting. Another might create a storyboard first, then use cards from the board to generate looping ideas. Writers knowledgeable about their chosen topic might start by creating an outline, and finish by conducting research.

Can I create a good piece of writing without prewriting?

Some writers prefer working without a plan. In fact, the harder they plan, the more restricted they feel. These writers are sometimes known as pantsers in book writing. That said, even pantsers do some planning. They might do preliminary research. A pantser might develop a brief outline that has only the beginning, middle, and end. Writers who skip the prewriting process entirely, and still manage to produce outstanding work, are exceedingly rare.

Final Notes On Prewriting strategies

Prewriting is the first stage of the writing process. This step is concerned with making sure you are prepared to start writing.

Research, mind mapping, listing, outlining, looping, and freewriting are just some of the prewriting techniques available to you. While none of these are compulsory, a good writer will always make use of some. Researching and asking journalistic questions are two things a serious writer will consider doing.

Chioma Ezeh is an author, digital marketer, business coach, and the founder of chiomaezeh.com, a blog that teaches how to build successful online businesses. Get in touch.

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pre writing essay sample

Prewriting is also known as discovery, invention, topic exploration, and a host of other terms that speak to the usefulness of this phase of writing. If you are trying to select a topic or explore a topic to begin a writing assignment, prewriting techniques offer ways to explore the topic more fully. Before you begin researching a topic from outside perspectives, it is important to research your own thoughts, knowledge, and experiences to understand how familiar you are with a topic.

One common misconception that students have is that they should already know what they want to write (form those ideas and sentences in their heads) before beginning to peck away at the typewriter or pull out that pencil.

An alternate perspective is that the physical act of writing and typing allows one to create meaning. Many writers get blocked when they attempt to form the perfect thoughts in their minds and transfer those thoughts on paper. But when they let themselves go, allow themselves to create a mess by prewriting early on in their writing, the ideas may flow. Brilliance appears, clear topics and directions emerge, and the block is dashed away.

Prewriting allows you to write without limitations and censors. Giving yourself this freedom may not only inspire you to get writing, but it may also help you discover those ideas that have been hidden away in your mind.

Think of prewriting as your bag of tricks to get started on any writing project. You may find some techniques much more comfortable and successful than others. Try each of the following prewriting forms in order to discover which works best for you. The most important thing to remember is to let yourself go. Try not to make judgments on the ideas and wording as they appear on the paper or screen. There’s always time to judge later. In the midst of prewriting, don’t censor yourself. Just write.


Freewriting allows you to write, usually for a specific period of time, without stopping. The ideas should just flow from your mind to the paper (or keyboard). It is your stream of consciousness.

Here’s how it works: Set a timer for 10-15 minutes. Then, begin writing and don’t stop until the timer goes off. That means don’t stop to correct spelling or to consider and ponder what you wrote; don’t stop for anything. Some practitioners suggest that you should not stop and backspace to correct typing or erase misspellings, as this act of editing might interrupt the flow of thought. It is also a good idea to have a phrase in mind for times when you get stuck, like typing “stuck, stuck, stuck” over and over again until your mind starts rolling.

There are many benefits to free writing. First, you clear your mind of clutter that might be preventing you from getting your ideas out. It’s okay to write much more than you will actually use in the paper. Remember, the process of writing will help you discover ideas, so write as much as you can. You can always cut material later. Freewriting gives you a strategy to begin writing.

Besides just getting the clutter out, freewriting can help you discover seeds of inspiration. You might find an interesting idea that you never knew was tucked in your brain or consciousness. Out that idea pops in a free writing exercise.

Below is a sample freewrite:

Online learning

So my assignment is to write a paper about the pros and cons of online nearning that is learning. But I haven’t been an online student for very long. What do I know abou this topic? It’s been ages since a that I was a traditional student. I think one thing that was appealing about online learning is that I could do it whenever I want to. I wasn’t or I’m not made to keep a particular schedule, come to class at a particular time. I just have to make srue that I get the assignments completed, finish my readings, keep up and turn things in teim. Of course, that is also a challenge. I have to be self motivated. No one is reminding me every other day in person that I have assignments due. I have to make an effort to get into my class each day and see what’s going on and keep yp. But I think there are great possibility possibilities for online learning in the future. I keep thining of my daughter in high school. There are tons of things she is interested in, but the school curriculum is pretty limited. If she could pick and choose classes that interest her and that challenge her from online schools, she would love it! She is so ingrained in the online environment anyway. Her friends and family are mostly online and she keeps up with current events that way too. There just seems to be so many more opportunities to reach out to folks online. And what if you live in a really rural area that is far away from a traditional university or college. Online would be perfect! I wonder how diffidult it is to keep the standards high and consistsent at online institutions. I wonder, I’m stuck, stuck, stuck, stuck, stuck, stuck, I lost my train of thought. Do you think it will cpome back? I ihope so, I was on a roll. Oh, yest, that’s it. I wonder how hard it is to get accredited. And I wonder how people do hands-on learning – practicums and health fields that need students to have so many hours working in a facility to get their training. How does that work with online learning? My time’s up!

To see the freewrite in action, click this link: http://tinyurl.com/freewrite-sample

The five-minute freewriting session above appears to be a giant mess at first glance. However, something interesting emerges. The student begins thinking about general ideas related to online learning – flexibility, student motivation – but then turns to a personal issue that online learning could affect – her daughter’s high school education. The possibilities of tailoring education to a high school student’s learning preferences and interests, changing the system of education quite dramatically, emerges from the freewrite. Perhaps the student has an avenue for researching the topic.

Find your inspiration through a freewriting session!


You probably brainstorm every day. When you need to run by the grocery store to pick up some items on the way home from work, you brainstorm. When you sit down and think of all the things you need to do in a day, you brainstorm. Brainstorming is simply making a list of the ideas, words, phrases, etc. that come to mind about a topic. The most important thing with brainstorming, as with all discovery methods, is to avoid censoring yourself. Just list. And don’t forget to let that list get messy.

As with freewriting, it is a good idea to set a specific amount of time, perhaps 10-15 minutes, to brainstorm in order to allow your mind to let go and list without restraint. You might also consider brainstorming with someone else, talking through ideas while your brainstorming partner records. Whether you decide to brainstorm on paper or out loud, this prewriting strategy is a healthy way to get your mind working toward a topic or further development.

Here is a sample brainstorming list that a student used to discover ideas for an assignment about her dream job:

Day care Preschool In-home facility Be my own boss Care for children of low-income families Network with other day cares Finances to start the business Support for tuition Government grants Network with child advocacy agencies Curriculum and state standards Advertising Preparing my home Help from family Need for child care in our area What’s the average income? Success rates in this area Inclusion

This brainstorming list helped the student discover some areas to research and to write about her future career in an in-home day care facility. She began thinking of the type of center she would like to create, the funding she will need to start her venture, and the support she can receive from local resources.

Ideally, the student will select a topic and possibly some subtopics from this brainstorming session to brainstorm in a separate list. She can focus her next exploration on a possible major supporting point of the paper, like the financial considerations for a day care owner.

Bubbling, like freewriting above, is a great technique when you have not yet developed a clear idea of where you are going with your topic. Bubbling is a technique that allows you to create a visual map of your ideas and thoughts, graphically organizing the relationships between those ideas. This is a great technique for people who are visual learners. Here is how it works.

Pick a word or phrase as your topic. In this example, the student used childhood obesity.

prewriting circles01

Now think about some ideas relating to the topic. For example, you might want to look into the causes, effects, or solutions of this problem in America.

prewriting circles02

Continue by adding on to these new circles.

prewriting circles03

And so on. Bubbling “maps” can grow quite large and complicated (imagine if everything from the freewrite and brainstorm were added here), but they are a great way to generate ideas. They are also helpful for organizing your ideas later on because concepts that should be linked together in the paper will be clustered together on the bubble map.

This prewriting technique is very similar to bubbling: You take a main idea, in this example “horror movies,” and write it in the center of the page, screen, or board. You then branch out sub-ideas (and sub-sub ideas) until you have filled up the area with a huge web of ideas. Here is an example of clustering, which is basically bubbling without drawing the circles:

As you can see from our bubbling and clustering examples, we are starting to generate some organization while we prewrite. Listing is another great way to organize as you prewrite. If you like creating lists for everyday tasks, you will want to try listing when you prepare to write a paper. Here is an example of listing using the horror movie topic:

Table 1.  Listing as an effective prewriting strategy.

Informal Outlining

Outlining is a terrific prewriting strategy to try, but do not be concerned about the formal elements of an outline, like whether to use Roman numerals (I, II, III) or Arabic (1, 2, 3). Instead, focus on generating ideas and getting a notion of structure instead of worrying about the finer points of how the outline looks. You can choose to write full sentences or simple phrases, and you should move ideas around as the structure becomes apparent. Here is an example of an outline using the topic of horror movies:

I. Who watches horror movies? A. Adult males? B. Adult females? C. Couples? D. Certain age demographics?

II. Why do we watch horror movies? A. To be scared, thrilled B. To relax C. To be first to see and tell friends D. To enjoy special effects

III. What types are popular? A. Series

  • Nightmare on Elm Street (Freddy)
  • Halloween (Michael Meyers)
  • Friday the 13th (Jason)

B. Supernatural 1. Creepy creatures

  • Psychotic criminal

Cubing is a technique that allows you to look at a subject in 6 different ways (like the 6 sides of a cube). It is a way to explore your topic fully and to help you realize what you know and what you don’t know about your topic.

When you cube your topic, you are researching your topic by delving into your memories and experiences in the following ways:

1. Describe it  – When you describe your topic, you will examine it through your five senses. What does it look like, feel like, sound like, taste like? What is the texture? What is the size?

2. Compare it  – When you compare your topic, think about what it is similar to and different from. You could compare physical elements, purpose, functions, usefulness, or other points.

3. Associate it  – When you associate your topic, discover what it makes you think of. How does it connect to or remind you of another topic?

4. Analyze it  – When you analyze your topic, consider the parts of the topic and how those parts relate to each other. What is it made of? Where does it come from and where is it going?

5. Apply it  – When you apply your topic, consider how it is useful to individuals, groups, society as a whole, the environment, the economy, or a host of other institutions. What can you do with your topic?

6. Argue it  – When you argue your topic, consider all of the arguments associated with it. You might consider political, ethical, social, economic, philosophical, or other areas of argument.

Once you have described, compared, associated, analyzed, applied, and argued your topic, you should have a good idea of what you know and don’t know about the topic. You should also be well on your way to finding a direction or focus for your drafting.

Prewriting Application

Below is a sample cubing session a student used to learn more about the topic homeschooling.


1. Describe – setting could vary daily

  • Worksheets at the kitchen table
  • Field trips to historic sites, museums, community organizations, government monuments and offices
  • Online curriculum
  • Parks programs for recreation – sports, art, dance, music
  • Instruction time varies daily and according to availability of resources
  • Mom or dad providing instruction
  • Independent reading
  • Blend of learning and family living

2. Compare to traditional schooling

  • Both provide a specific curriculum and require teaching, reflection, and assessment
  • Home school could be organized around the interests of the child and the environment of the family; traditional school is organized by a set curriculum and the school calendar.
  • With home school, parents are responsible for ensuring the child has a full and rich educational experience; with traditional schooling, the school is responsible for providing the instruction according to standards set by the state, city, or district.
  • With home school, social interaction among peers must be sought out; with traditional schools, peer interaction occurs daily.
  • With home school, the parents will be financially responsible for the cost of curriculum; with traditional schools, tax dollars take care of the cost of curriculum.

3. Associate homeschooling

  • Intelligent, independent kids
  • Parents encouraging religious education
  • Exploration
  • Driven parents
  • Perceived problems in traditional school settings

4. Analyze homeschooling

  • Homeschooling may take children out of the traditional school setting, but they could still be engaged in the academic community.
  • The parent’s role may change once he or she begins homeschooling.
  • The line between home and school might blend together. Do home experiences become teaching experiences and vice versa?
  • What are the effects of a child’s encouragement to explore areas of interest with guidance from the parent/teacher?

5. Apply homeschooling

  • Homeschooling might be a good option for students in smaller and poorer school districts interesting in pursuing studies that are not available in traditional schools.
  • New technologies make homeschooling possible for more students (curriculum delivery online).
  • Parents become more aware of the education their children need and how to provide their child’s education through homeschooling.

6. Arguments associated with homeschooling

  • Homeschoolers lacking social interaction
  • Does homeschooling curriculum hold up to state and local standards of education?
  • Are parents isolating their kids when they home school them?
  • Is the role of teacher a healthy role for a parent to play?

When you begin your next writing assignment, try a few of the freewriting techniques explained above. And since the writing process is a recursive process, meaning you will revisit phases as you write and revise, use your new bag of prewriting tricks any time you are trying to develop content or rewrite sections of your project.

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Humanities LibreTexts

6.8: Prewriting Strategies

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  • Page ID 58325
  • Lumen Learning

Learning Objectives

  • Describe and use prewriting strategies (such as journaling, mapping, questioning, sketching)

Prewriting has no set structure or organization; it is usually just a collection of ideas that may find themselves in your paper over time. Prewriting is also a great way to get past writer’s block—that period of time when you find you have no ideas or don’t know how to put your thoughts together. There is no right or wrong way to approach prewriting, but there are some strategies that can get you thinking. You already learned about brainstorming and freewriting, but there are other helpful techniques to get you started that include journaling, mapping, questioning, and sketching.

Many people write in personal journals (or online blogs). Writers not only record events in journals, but also reflect and record thoughts, observations, questions, and feelings. They are safe spaces to record your experience of the world.

Use a journal to write about an experience you had, different reactions you have observed to the same situation, a current item in the news, an ethical problem at work, an incident with one of your children, a memorable childhood experience of your own, etc. Try to probe the why or how of the situation.

Journals can help you develop ideas for writing. When you review your journal entries, you may find that you keep coming back to a particular topic, or that you have written a lot about one topic in a specific entry, or that you’re really passionate about an issue. Those are the topics, then, about which you obviously have something to say. Those are the topics you might develop further in a piece of writing.

Here’s one sample journal entry. Read through it and look for ideas that the writer might develop further in a piece of writing:

The hot issue here has been rising gas prices. People in our town are mostly commuters who work in the state capitol and have to drive about 30 miles each way to and from work. One local gas station has been working with the gas company to establish a gas cooperative, where folks who joined would pay a bit less per gallon. I don’t know whether I like this idea – it’s like joining one of those stores where you have to pay to shop there. You’ve got to buy a lot to recoup your membership fee. I wonder if this is a ploy of the gas company???? Others were talking about starting a petition to the local commuter bus service, to add more routes and times, as the current service isn’t enough to address workers’ schedules and needs. Still others are talking about initiating a light rail system, but this is an alternative that will take a lot of years and won’t address the situation immediately. I remember the gas crunch a number of years ago and remember that we simply started to carpool. In the Washington, DC area, with its huge traffic problems and large number of commuters, carpooling is so accepted that there are designated parking and pickup places along the highway, and it’s apparently accepted for strangers to pull over, let those waiting know where they’re headed, and offer rides. I’m not certain I’d go that far . . .


Mapping Strategy

Mapping or diagramming is similar to freewriting, but the outcome often looks more like a list of related ideas. This strategy is quite similar to brainstorming where the listed ideas may or may not be connected with arrows or lines. You should set a time limit of 5 to 10 minutes and jot down all the ideas you have about the topic. Instead of writing sentences, you are quickly jotting down ideas, perhaps showing connections and building a map of your thoughts. Here are some online tools that can help with this process:

  • MindMeister

Mapping and diagramming may help you create information on a topic, and/or organize information from a list or freewriting entries, as a map provides a visual for the types of information you’ve generated about a topic. For example:

Mind map showing squirrels in the center, connected to types of squirrels, how they nest, getting rid of them in the garden, and so forth.

Questioning Strategy

This is a basic strategy, useful at many levels, that helps you jot down the basic important information about a topic. Starting by asking the questions who? what? when? where? why? and how? For example, below are answers created for the topic: What is the impact of traditional ecological knowledge on environmental management?

  • Who? The Dene and Kissi tribes from two different ecosystems were impacted by European colonizers and their fire management policies.
  • What? Consider the impact of fire on the peoples in both environments.
  • Where? Canadian policies and historical data compared to African policies and historical data.
  • When? As far back as the last ice age, there is evidence of how fire has impacted the land. I will focus on the impact of colonization and the policies that affected the land management practices of the indigenous peoples. I will also consider the current implications of controlling and preventing fires.
  • Why? This information is important because the knowledge from the indigenous peoples and their traditional practices provides important insights into how to improve current fire practices.
  • How? Look at historical and current records, such as Lewis, Wuerthner, Fairhead and Leach . . .

Notice how this series of questions and answers is more developed than this topic would be if you were thinking about it for the first time. This author has done a bit of preliminary reading on the subject between the two prewriting activities. This helps illustrate how prewriting can be useful to return to, even after later stages of the writing process.

If you have a broad topic you want to write about, but don’t quite know how to narrow it, you can also ask defining questions to help you develop your main idea for writing. For example, if you want to write about school taxes, you could ask:

  • Why do only property owners (and not renters) in New York State pay school taxes?
  • What percent of overall school funding comes from school taxes?
  • Do other states fund schools in the same way?
  • Does the state lottery system, initially designed to fund schools, actually support schools?
  • Is there a limit to paying school taxes when one gets older and no longer has children in school?

Once you have your questions, you can work with the list to group related questions, and then decide whether your writing can logically deal with a number of the questions together or only one. Use questioning to help develop a focus for your writing.

Sketching Strategy

A picture is worth a thousand words. Your first thinking is done in pictures. So, if you are a visual learner and like to sketch out your thoughts, grab a pen and paper and draw what you are thinking. This strategy is especially effective if you are trying to conceptualize an idea or clarify relationships between parts of an idea.

Sketching involves drawing out your ideas using a pen and paper. One strategy that can be useful for planning comparison and contrast type papers is a Venn diagram . A Venn diagram is a strategy that uses two (or more) overlapping circles to show relationships between sets of ideas. The information written where two circles overlap is common to both ideas. The information written outside the overlapping area is information distinct to only one of the ideas.

Sketching Example

Explore the sketch of a Venn diagram created for the topic: What is the impact of traditional ecological knowledge on environmental management?

A venn diagram titled "Universal Use of fire by native peoples to change ecosystems". A comparison between two tribes is shown by the two sides of the diagram, and each bullet point is paired with a supporting source. There is additional writing outside of the diagram with supporting information.

Notice how this Venn Diagram is even more developed than the same topic explored previously. This author has done even deeper research on the subject, demonstrated by the citations given after some facts here. Again, this helps illustrate how prewriting can be useful to return to, even after later stages of the writing process.

Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of prewriting strategies. You may find that some of these are helpful for certain types of writing projects, or you may prefer other strategies such as making lists, bulleting key points, or writing out pros and cons. Whichever strategy you choose, be sure to save your prewriting work. You may want to revisit this stage of the writing process again to make sure that you captured all your thoughts in your outline or first draft. You may also want to do more prewriting in the middle of your writing project if you need some help overcoming writer’s block.

Contributors and Attributions

  • Revision and Adaptation. Provided by : Lumen Learning. License : CC BY: Attribution
  • Mapping. Provided by : Excelsior OWL. Located at : https://owl.excelsior.edu/writing-process/prewriting-strategies/prewriting-strategies-mapping/ . License : CC BY: Attribution
  • Prewriting. Provided by : Lethbridge College. Located at : www.lethbridgecollege.net/elearningcafe/index.php/writing/the-writing-process/prewriting. Project : eLearning Cafe. License : CC BY: Attribution
  • Freewriting. Provided by : Excelsior OWL. Located at : https://owl.excelsior.edu/writing-process/prewriting-strategies/prewriting-strategies-freewriting/ . License : CC BY: Attribution
  • Journaling. Provided by : Excelsior OWL. Located at : https://owl.excelsior.edu/writing-process/prewriting-strategies/prewriting-strategies-journaling/ . License : CC BY: Attribution

pre writing essay sample

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Writing a Paper: Prewriting

Prewriting basics.

Writing is a process, not an event. Taking the time to prepare for your writing will help make the writing process smooth and efficient. Follow these steps to ensure that your page does not stay blank for long. All of prewriting resources should be used simultaneously—you will often find yourself switching back and forth between brainstorming, critical reading, organizing, and fighting off writer’s block as you begin a new assignment.

Take Careful Notes

While reading, make sure that you are taking notes on relevant information.

Group your notes by topics or main ideas so you can see the connections among the material you have read. Try some of the Writing Center's brainstorming activities  for help generating and connecting ideas.

Be sure to provide a citation (author, year, and page number) for every note that you take. This way, you will not have to  interrupt your writing process later to find citation information.

Knowing how to read effectively will be one of your strongest assets in the prewriting process. Review the Academic Skills Center's resources on  critical reading  for more tips on getting the most from your research and reading.

Choose a Topic

Review the notes you have made to identify trends and areas of interest. Ask yourself where you have taken the most notes, where the most information is focused, and where any gaps in the literature might be. Do not discount your own interests—it is easiest to write a paper on a topic that intrigues you! 

Use our brainstorming resources to help narrow down your paper topic, or consult your instructor for extra help. Once you have chosen a topic, you may need to go back to the note-taking stage and find more information to flesh out the body of your paper. Do not forget that most scholarly papers should advance a clear claim, articulated in the paper's thesis statement .

Develop Your Analysis

Good scholarly writers ask questions as they research, and the answers to those questions often become the organizing arguments in their papers. As you continue to read and take notes, think about the major claims that exist already about your topic. Ask yourself if you agree or disagree—or think the major claims should have a different direction entirely! Our resources on critical thinking can help you develop the main points of your paper before you begin writing. Remember that you will likely also be continuing the brainstorming process as you develop your analysis.

Prewriting Video Playlist

Note that these videos were created while APA 6 was the style guide edition in use. There may be some examples of writing that have not been updated to APA 7 guidelines.

  • Prewriting Demonstrations: Outlining (video transcript)
  • Prewriting Demonstrations: Mindmapping (video transcript)
  • Prewriting Demonstrations: Freewriting (video transcript)

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Writing based on Texts

pre writing essay sample

Know that when you’re writing based on reading, you automatically engage in some prewriting when you apply reading strategies for understanding a text. For example, annotating, note taking, and questioning all contribute to prewriting, since those strategies start to elicit your own ideas about a text. That doesn’t mean that you can skip prewriting, though, when you need to compose your own text. Prewriting strategies can help you reflect on your notes and annotations, identify questions you want to pursue more fully, or think more specifically about ideas that you’ve summarized.

There are many different prewriting strategies that work equally well whether or not you are basing your writing on a text that you’ve read.


The purpose of freewriting is to identify a topic for writing.

Freewriting is just what it sounds like—you write freely whatever comes into your head. The idea here is to keep your fingers moving. Time yourself for 5 minutes, and just keep writing, even if you’re writing “I don’t know what to write.” Set the freewriting aside and, after a few minutes, do another freewriting. Often, when you do a series of four or five freewritings, you can identify recurring ideas. A recurring idea might be fruitful to develop into a more extended piece of writing.

When you freewrite to generate an idea for an essay based on a text , you usually start with a concept from the text and then freely associate ideas occur to you about that concept. The concept may be the text’s main idea or a supporting idea, or even an example or detail that the author used to explain an idea. You might also freewrite about an association you made with the text based on your background knowledge or experience.

Asking Questions

Asking questions can help you both identify a topic for writing, and identify ideas about that topic.

For example, you may want to ask and answer questions such as “What am I interested in?” or “What news article/issue has captured my interest recently?” in order to identify a topic for writing. Or, you may want to ask and answer a series of ever-narrowing questions to help you narrow your thoughts to one aspect of a broad topic, in order to develop a manageable question or topic about which to write.  For example:

pre writing essay sample

Once you think you have an appropriate topic or question, you may ask journalists’ questions of “who, what, when, where, why, and how” to develop ideas further. You may also ask questions about your own knowledge of the topic, what you may need to read or research in order to supplement that knowledge, and what types of sources may yield the research you need.

When you use questions to prewrite for an essay based on a text , revisit any questions you may have asked about a text while or after reading that text. Were your questions answered in the text? If so, what additional questions do those answers bring to mind? If not, what information do you need in order to answer those questions? Jotting down questions related to a text and answering those questions can help you identify ideas for a topic and for supporting that topic when you write based on a text.

Brainstorming & Listing

The purpose of brainstorming and listing is to develop ideas once you already have a topic.

When you brainstorm, you freely associate in order to develop all possible ideas and information related to a topic. You jot down any and all ideas, no matter how unorthodox or different they are, so that you can capture all nuances of a topic that occur to you.

Listing is similar, although lists are often more focused than brainstorming. The basic difference lies in the scope of the ideas. Lists often include ideas that are more “orthodox,” related directly to the topic at hand.

pre writing essay sample

When you brainstorm or list to develop ideas based on a text , review your notes, annotations, summaries, questions—any information you jotted down during and after reading. Choose a topic from those notes that you want to pursue further, or choose a related topic from your own experience. Brainstorm around that topic, or list out recurring ideas from your notes

that relate to the topic. You may want to apply the strategy of making increasingly narrow lists, similar to the concept in the question and answer chain above, to develop ideas focused around a specific topic.

Graphic Organizers

An idea matrix is one type of graphic organizer. The purpose of graphic organizers is to both develop ideas about a topic and group similar ideas.

When you use graphic organizers to develop ideas based on a text , choose an idea from the text that piques your interest, that you agree or disagree with, or that you have further thoughts about. Jot down your thoughts and, as you are doing so, link related information to show relationships. For example, if you decide to work with an idea with which you disagree, you might draw a mind map with that disagreeable idea in the center, and then bubbles for each reason why you disagree. You’d then draw smaller bubbles coming off of each reason to provide evidence and details. You might even have a bubble showing reasons to agree, although this would be smaller than your reasons to disagree.

One particular type of graphic organizer is an idea matrix, which is a way to prewrite once you have an idea of what you want to write about. The next page, Idea Matrix , goes into more depth with this useful prewriting technique, which is a link between prewriting and starting an essay draft.

Note that an idea matrix can be used in many different ways in addition to being used as a prewriting strategy.  On the page Visuals & Graphic Organizers , there’s a video that discusses using an idea matrix as a reading strategy to interact with a text.  On the page Reading, Noting, & Synthesizing Sources , you’ll read about using an idea matrix to figure out where to place source information in a research essay.

Summary of Prewriting Techniques

The video below reviews and provides examples of freewriting, questioning, brainstorming, and using graphic organizers (clustering).

  • Prewriting: Generating Ideas Based on a Text. Authored by : Susan Oaks. License : CC BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial
  • image of man with laptop, writing on a pad of paper. Authored by : StartupStockPhotos. Provided by : Pixabay. Located at : https://pixabay.com/photos/write-plan-desk-notes-pen-writing-593333/ . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved
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Prewriting for Composition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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  • Ph.D., Rhetoric and English, University of Georgia
  • M.A., Modern English and American Literature, University of Leicester
  • B.A., English, State University of New York

In composition , the term prewriting refers to any activity that helps a writer think about a topic , determine a purpose , analyze an audience , and prepare to write . Prewriting is closely related to the art of invention in classical rhetoric .

"The objective of prewriting," according to Roger Caswell and Brenda Mahler, "is to prepare students for writing by allowing them to discover what they know and what else they need to know. Prewriting invites exploration and promotes the motivation to write" ( Strategies for Teaching Writing , 2004).

Because various kinds of writing (such as note-taking , listing, and freewriting) usually occur during this stage of the writing process, the term  prewriting  is somewhat misleading. A number of teachers and researchers prefer the term exploratory writing .

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:

  • Writing Process
  • Discovery Strategies (Heuristics)
  • George Carlin on Finding Something to Write About
  • Your Writing: Private and Public

Types of Prewriting Activities

  • Brainstorming
  • Freewriting
  • Journalists' Questions
  • Journal Writing

Examples and Observations

  • "Prewriting is the 'getting ready to write' stage. The traditional notion that writers have a topic completely thought out and ready to flow onto the page is ridiculous. Writers begin tentatively—talking, reading, brainstorming—to see what they know and in what direction they want to go." -Gail Tompkins, Rod Campbell, and David Green,  Literacy for the 21st Century . Pearson Australia, 2010
  • "Prewriting involves anything you do to help yourself decide what your central idea is or what details, examples, reasons, or content you will include. Freewriting, brainstorming, and clustering . . . are types of prewriting. Thinking, talking to other people, reading related material, outlining or organizing ideas—all are forms of prewriting. Obviously, you can prewrite at any time in the writing process. Whenever you want to think up new material, simply stop what you are doing and start using one of [these] techniques..." -Stephen McDonald and William Salomone, The Writer's Response , 5th ed. Wadsworth, 2012

The Aims of Prewriting "Usually, the prewriting activities help you find a good topic, narrow topics that are too broad, and look at purpose. You should finish the prewriting activities with at least a sentence and a list . Or you may have something as formal as a three-part thesis sentence and a fully developed outline. Either way, you'll have laid the groundwork." -Sharon Sorenson, Webster's New World Student Writing Handbook . Wiley, 2010

Prewriting as a Method of Discovery "Jeannette Harris stresses prewriting while stating that discovery occurs throughout the composing process, even in revision , when the writer is still 'retrieving additional information, making further connections, recognizing emerging patterns' [ Expressive Discourse , 15]. In prewriting as well as free-writing and keeping journals, ideas and forms are discovered by provoking memory. In addition, the personal nature of much prewriting and freewriting serve as an affirmation that the memory of the student writer has a valid place in the writing classroom." -Janine Rider, The Writer's Book of Memory: An Interdisciplinary Study for Writing Teachers . Routledge, 1995

Prewriting and Revising "[P]rewriting plans are not carved in stone; they are simply tools for generating and organizing ideas. Writers frequently change their minds as they write, eliminating some details , adding and changing others. That's why some writers say that 'prewriting' is a misnomer; they return to their plans over and over during all stages of the writing process, often revising and adjusting the plans as they go." -Lori Jamison Rog,  Marvelous Minilessons for Teaching Intermediate Writing . International Reading Association, 2011

  • The Use of Listing in Composition
  • How to Explore Ideas Through Clustering
  • Definition and Examples of Paragraphing in Essays
  • Focusing in Composition
  • Discover Ideas Through Brainstorming
  • Discovery Strategy for Freewriting
  • A Writing Portfolio Can Help You Perfect Your Writing Skills
  • The Whys and How-tos for Group Writing in All Content Areas
  • Thesis: Definition and Examples in Composition
  • Explore and Evaluate Your Writing Process
  • Worksheet 2: Author's Purpose
  • The Prewriting Stage of the Writing Process
  • How to Write a Descriptive Paragraph
  • Preparing an Argument Essay: Exploring Both Sides of an Issue
  • Audience Analysis in Speech and Composition
  • The Drafting Stage of the Writing Process

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Pre-writing Activities and Drafting Your Essay

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This handout covers major topics relating to writing about fiction. This covers prewriting, close reading, thesis development, drafting, and common pitfalls to avoid.

Pre-writing Activities

1. freewrite.

Without referring to the text or your notes, write for five to ten minutes on all the images (or the device you have chosen to examine) you can recall. This will provide an initial list which will make up your body of evidence.
Look back through the text and your notes to further identify evidence, keeping focused on the particular device you want to discuss.

3. Research

Optional: Ask your instructor about outside sources before you use them. Once you've identified enough textual evidence to support your thesis, you may want to see what other writers have had to say about your topic. This kind of appeal to other authorities helps you back up and interpret your reading of the work.

4. Evaluate

You will probably generate more evidence than you can use. One way to decide which evidence to take and which to leave is to limit your choices to the best, most illustrative examples you can find. Focus on how the devices are used to develop major characters, major scenes, and major turning points in the work.

Drafting your essay

You've read and annotated the work, developed a thesis, and identified your evidence. Now you're ready to work your evidence into your draft. Here are some effective techniques.

What is a quote?

Quoting involves taking a word, phrase, or passage directly from the story, novel, or critical essay and working it grammatically into your discussion. Here's an example:

In his novel, The Secret Agent , Conrad describes Verloc as "undemonstrative and burly in a fat-pig style.... " (69). The pig image suggests that Verloc is not a lean, zealous anarchist, but is actually a corrupt, complacent middle class man who is interested in preserving his comfortable status.

Notice three things about the example above:

  • The passage from the novel is enclosed in quotes and the page number is indicated in parentheses. For more help see our handouts on MLA and APA .
  • The passage is introduced in a coherent grammatical style; it reads like a complete, correct sentence. For more help, see our handout on using quotation marks .
  • The quote is interpreted, not patched on and left for the reader to figure out what it means.

When should I quote?

  • To make a particularly important point
  • When a passage or point is particularly well written
  • To include a particularly authoritative source

How should I quote?

  • All quotes must be introduced, discussed, and woven into the text. As you revise, make sure you don't have two quotes end-to-end.
  • A good rule of thumb: Don't let your quotes exceed 25% of your text.

2. Paraphrasing

What is paraphrasing?

  • This is using your own words to say what the author said. To paraphrase the quote used above, you might say something like:

When should I paraphrase?

  • Paraphrasing is useful in general discussion (introduction or conclusion) or when the author's original style is hard to understand.
  • Again, you would need to interpret the paraphrase just as you would a quote.
  • For more help, see the OWL handout on paraphrasing .

3. Summarizing

What is summarizing?

  • This is taking larger passages from the original work and summing them up in a sentence or two. To use the example above:

When should I summarize?

  • Like paraphrasing, summary is useful in general discussion which leads up to a specific point and when you want to introduce the work and present the thesis.
  • For more help, see the OWL handout on Summarizing .

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  • Academic writing
  • A step-by-step guide to the writing process

The Writing Process | 5 Steps with Examples & Tips

Published on April 24, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on December 8, 2023.

The writing process steps

Good academic writing requires effective planning, drafting, and revision.

The writing process looks different for everyone, but there are five basic steps that will help you structure your time when writing any kind of text.

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Table of contents

Step 1: prewriting, step 2: planning and outlining, step 3: writing a first draft, step 4: redrafting and revising, step 5: editing and proofreading, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about the writing process.

Before you start writing, you need to decide exactly what you’ll write about and do the necessary research.

Coming up with a topic

If you have to come up with your own topic for an assignment, think of what you’ve covered in class— is there a particular area that intrigued, interested, or even confused you? Topics that left you with additional questions are perfect, as these are questions you can explore in your writing.

The scope depends on what type of text you’re writing—for example, an essay or a research paper will be less in-depth than a dissertation topic . Don’t pick anything too ambitious to cover within the word count, or too limited for you to find much to say.

Narrow down your idea to a specific argument or question. For example, an appropriate topic for an essay might be narrowed down like this:

Doing the research

Once you know your topic, it’s time to search for relevant sources and gather the information you need. This process varies according to your field of study and the scope of the assignment. It might involve:

  • Searching for primary and secondary sources .
  • Reading the relevant texts closely (e.g. for literary analysis ).
  • Collecting data using relevant research methods (e.g. experiments , interviews or surveys )

From a writing perspective, the important thing is to take plenty of notes while you do the research. Keep track of the titles, authors, publication dates, and relevant quotations from your sources; the data you gathered; and your initial analysis or interpretation of the questions you’re addressing.

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Especially in academic writing , it’s important to use a logical structure to convey information effectively. It’s far better to plan this out in advance than to try to work out your structure once you’ve already begun writing.

Creating an essay outline is a useful way to plan out your structure before you start writing. This should help you work out the main ideas you want to focus on and how you’ll organize them. The outline doesn’t have to be final—it’s okay if your structure changes throughout the writing process.

Use bullet points or numbering to make your structure clear at a glance. Even for a short text that won’t use headings, it’s useful to summarize what you’ll discuss in each paragraph.

An outline for a literary analysis essay might look something like this:

  • Describe the theatricality of Austen’s works
  • Outline the role theater plays in Mansfield Park
  • Introduce the research question: How does Austen use theater to express the characters’ morality in Mansfield Park ?
  • Discuss Austen’s depiction of the performance at the end of the first volume
  • Discuss how Sir Bertram reacts to the acting scheme
  • Introduce Austen’s use of stage direction–like details during dialogue
  • Explore how these are deployed to show the characters’ self-absorption
  • Discuss Austen’s description of Maria and Julia’s relationship as polite but affectionless
  • Compare Mrs. Norris’s self-conceit as charitable despite her idleness
  • Summarize the three themes: The acting scheme, stage directions, and the performance of morals
  • Answer the research question
  • Indicate areas for further study

Once you have a clear idea of your structure, it’s time to produce a full first draft.

This process can be quite non-linear. For example, it’s reasonable to begin writing with the main body of the text, saving the introduction for later once you have a clearer idea of the text you’re introducing.

To give structure to your writing, use your outline as a framework. Make sure that each paragraph has a clear central focus that relates to your overall argument.

Hover over the parts of the example, from a literary analysis essay on Mansfield Park , to see how a paragraph is constructed.

The character of Mrs. Norris provides another example of the performance of morals in Mansfield Park . Early in the novel, she is described in scathing terms as one who knows “how to dictate liberality to others: but her love of money was equal to her love of directing” (p. 7). This hypocrisy does not interfere with her self-conceit as “the most liberal-minded sister and aunt in the world” (p. 7). Mrs. Norris is strongly concerned with appearing charitable, but unwilling to make any personal sacrifices to accomplish this. Instead, she stage-manages the charitable actions of others, never acknowledging that her schemes do not put her own time or money on the line. In this way, Austen again shows us a character whose morally upright behavior is fundamentally a performance—for whom the goal of doing good is less important than the goal of seeming good.

When you move onto a different topic, start a new paragraph. Use appropriate transition words and phrases to show the connections between your ideas.

The goal at this stage is to get a draft completed, not to make everything perfect as you go along. Once you have a full draft in front of you, you’ll have a clearer idea of where improvement is needed.

Give yourself a first draft deadline that leaves you a reasonable length of time to revise, edit, and proofread before the final deadline. For a longer text like a dissertation, you and your supervisor might agree on deadlines for individual chapters.

Now it’s time to look critically at your first draft and find potential areas for improvement. Redrafting means substantially adding or removing content, while revising involves making changes to structure and reformulating arguments.

Evaluating the first draft

It can be difficult to look objectively at your own writing. Your perspective might be positively or negatively biased—especially if you try to assess your work shortly after finishing it.

It’s best to leave your work alone for at least a day or two after completing the first draft. Come back after a break to evaluate it with fresh eyes; you’ll spot things you wouldn’t have otherwise.

When evaluating your writing at this stage, you’re mainly looking for larger issues such as changes to your arguments or structure. Starting with bigger concerns saves you time—there’s no point perfecting the grammar of something you end up cutting out anyway.

Right now, you’re looking for:

  • Arguments that are unclear or illogical.
  • Areas where information would be better presented in a different order.
  • Passages where additional information or explanation is needed.
  • Passages that are irrelevant to your overall argument.

For example, in our paper on Mansfield Park , we might realize the argument would be stronger with more direct consideration of the protagonist Fanny Price, and decide to try to find space for this in paragraph IV.

For some assignments, you’ll receive feedback on your first draft from a supervisor or peer. Be sure to pay close attention to what they tell you, as their advice will usually give you a clearer sense of which aspects of your text need improvement.

Redrafting and revising

Once you’ve decided where changes are needed, make the big changes first, as these are likely to have knock-on effects on the rest. Depending on what your text needs, this step might involve:

  • Making changes to your overall argument.
  • Reordering the text.
  • Cutting parts of the text.
  • Adding new text.

You can go back and forth between writing, redrafting and revising several times until you have a final draft that you’re happy with.

Think about what changes you can realistically accomplish in the time you have. If you are running low on time, you don’t want to leave your text in a messy state halfway through redrafting, so make sure to prioritize the most important changes.

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Editing focuses on local concerns like clarity and sentence structure. Proofreading involves reading the text closely to remove typos and ensure stylistic consistency. You can check all your drafts and texts in minutes with an AI proofreader .

Editing for grammar and clarity

When editing, you want to ensure your text is clear, concise, and grammatically correct. You’re looking out for:

  • Grammatical errors.
  • Ambiguous phrasings.
  • Redundancy and repetition .

In your initial draft, it’s common to end up with a lot of sentences that are poorly formulated. Look critically at where your meaning could be conveyed in a more effective way or in fewer words, and watch out for common sentence structure mistakes like run-on sentences and sentence fragments:

  • Austen’s style is frequently humorous, her characters are often described as “witty.” Although this is less true of Mansfield Park .
  • Austen’s style is frequently humorous. Her characters are often described as “witty,” although this is less true of Mansfield Park .

To make your sentences run smoothly, you can always use a paraphrasing tool to rewrite them in a clearer way.

Proofreading for small mistakes and typos

When proofreading, first look out for typos in your text:

  • Spelling errors.
  • Missing words.
  • Confused word choices .
  • Punctuation errors .
  • Missing or excess spaces.

Use a grammar checker , but be sure to do another manual check after. Read through your text line by line, watching out for problem areas highlighted by the software but also for any other issues it might have missed.

For example, in the following phrase we notice several errors:

  • Mary Crawfords character is a complicate one and her relationships with Fanny and Edmund undergoes several transformations through out the novel.
  • Mary Crawford’s character is a complicated one, and her relationships with both Fanny and Edmund undergo several transformations throughout the novel.

Proofreading for stylistic consistency

There are several issues in academic writing where you can choose between multiple different standards. For example:

  • Whether you use the serial comma .
  • Whether you use American or British spellings and punctuation (you can use a punctuation checker for this).
  • Where you use numerals vs. words for numbers.
  • How you capitalize your titles and headings.

Unless you’re given specific guidance on these issues, it’s your choice which standards you follow. The important thing is to consistently follow one standard for each issue. For example, don’t use a mixture of American and British spellings in your paper.

Additionally, you will probably be provided with specific guidelines for issues related to format (how your text is presented on the page) and citations (how you acknowledge your sources). Always follow these instructions carefully.

If you want to know more about AI for academic writing, AI tools, or fallacies make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

  • Ad hominem fallacy
  • Post hoc fallacy
  • Appeal to authority fallacy
  • False cause fallacy
  • Sunk cost fallacy
  • Deep learning
  • Generative AI
  • Machine learning
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  • Supervised vs. unsupervised learning

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Revising, proofreading, and editing are different stages of the writing process .

  • Revising is making structural and logical changes to your text—reformulating arguments and reordering information.
  • Editing refers to making more local changes to things like sentence structure and phrasing to make sure your meaning is conveyed clearly and concisely.
  • Proofreading involves looking at the text closely, line by line, to spot any typos and issues with consistency and correct them.

Whether you’re publishing a blog, submitting a research paper , or even just writing an important email, there are a few techniques you can use to make sure it’s error-free:

  • Take a break : Set your work aside for at least a few hours so that you can look at it with fresh eyes.
  • Proofread a printout : Staring at a screen for too long can cause fatigue – sit down with a pen and paper to check the final version.
  • Use digital shortcuts : Take note of any recurring mistakes (for example, misspelling a particular word, switching between US and UK English , or inconsistently capitalizing a term), and use Find and Replace to fix it throughout the document.

If you want to be confident that an important text is error-free, it might be worth choosing a professional proofreading service instead.

If you’ve gone over the word limit set for your assignment, shorten your sentences and cut repetition and redundancy during the editing process. If you use a lot of long quotes , consider shortening them to just the essentials.

If you need to remove a lot of words, you may have to cut certain passages. Remember that everything in the text should be there to support your argument; look for any information that’s not essential to your point and remove it.

To make this process easier and faster, you can use a paraphrasing tool . With this tool, you can rewrite your text to make it simpler and shorter. If that’s not enough, you can copy-paste your paraphrased text into the summarizer . This tool will distill your text to its core message.

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Academic Writing Success

6 Creative Prewriting Activities for Academic Writing

by Suzanne Davis | May 28, 2020 | Writing Process

How do you develop essay ideas?

How do you find an interesting topic you can use for academic writing? Start with prewriting activities that help you unleash your thoughts and put them onto paper.  What is prewriting? 

It is the first stage of the writing process where you come up with ideas, make notes (and sometimes do research) and plan what you will write. Prewriting is an essential piece of academic writing, but many people overlook it.

They think prewriting is only for creative writing–it’s not.  Whatever writing genre you are in, prewriting helps you find and plan your ideas.  Prewriting for academic writing is like other types of prewriting; the difference is in how you evaluate writing ideas.

When you select a topic, you search for what interests you, as well as whether or not there is research about it.

Prewriting helps you select a topic you’re interested in and figure out what things you should include in your academic essay or paper.  The trick is in finding the ideal prewriting method that suits your personality as a writer and gets you excited to start a new writing project.

Today, we’re looking at 6 types of prewriting so that you can find the right activities for your writing process.

6 Prewriting Activities for Academic Writing

These are 6 prewriting activities I use to help my students decide what to write about and how they should plan their writing.

Three of these prewriting techniques will help find your topic and select some of your content. Three prewriting activities are for when you already know your subject and want to organize it.   Use one or a combination of these prewriting techniques to get you started on your essay.

Prewriting Activity 1: Brainstorming (Listing) Ideas

Brainstorming is where you write or type down every idea you have for a possible essay topic or any other kind of writing project.  Then you can use one of those ideas as a topic, and create a second list of ideas based on your essay topic.

The process for brainstorming is:

Part 1 –select a writing topic:.

  • Find a place where you can focus without distraction.
  • Ask yourself, “what can I write about?”
  • Think for a moment.
  • List every idea that comes to your mind.
  • Do this for a short time (5-10 minutes).
  • Look over your list and pick a topic.

Part 2—Choose content to include in your topic

  • Focus on the question, “What ideas relate to this topic?”
  • Write down every thought that comes to your mind for 5-10 minutes.
  • Circle ideas that intrigue you.
  • Decide which ideas would best relate to the essay topic, and which ideas are interesting.

Brainstorming is excellent for anyone who likes to do short creative activities that don’t require writing in complete sentences.  There is an organized process to it, but this activity doesn’t restrain the mind.

You won’t have a well-structured essay outline at the end of this activity, but you could try this activity first and then create an outline.

Prewriting Activity 2: Clustering/Mind Maps

This is an activity where you create a web or mind map based on your essay topic.   Clustering and mind mapping are the same thing, but the word “clustering” was used first.   

I use the words “mind map” because I use mind maps for many different learning activities.   The process is the same, no matter what you call this prewriting technique.

The process for creating a mind map is:

  • Select your main topic.
  • Write your main idea in a circle in the middle of your map.
  • Think of an idea that relates to the main idea.
  • Draw a line and write that word/s in a circle. These ideas are major categories you can include in your essay or paper.
  • Do this for every idea that relates to your main topic.
  • Look at the major categories you wrote in these circles.
  • For each category, think of related ideas.
  • Draw a branch with a circle for each related idea.
  • Analyze the ideas in your mind map, and decide which ones you want to include in your writing project.

Prewriting Activities Mind Map

This prewriting activity is good for people who know their writing topic and want to develop ideas about what to include in their essay or paper. It is also an excellent activity for visual learners and people who don’t want to write a lot of words during the prewriting process.

Prewriting Activity 3: Freewriting and Looping

Freewriting is an activity where you write non-stop for a set number of minutes to find a topic.  You can use freewriting for other purposes like developing your writing voice and style, but it is a great prewriting activity too.  When you use it for prewriting, start with an open-ended question like, “What can I write about? or  “What things interest me?”

Looping is the second part of freewriting.  You take your writing topic and then write about it non-stop for another set number of minutes.  Looping will help you find other ideas you want to add to your writing.

Rachel Connor explains freewriting and looping in her post, “The Prewriting Toolkit: Freewriting and Looping” at  http://rachelconnorwriter.com/2014/12/the-prewriting-toolkit-freewriting-and-looping/

The goal of this activity is the same as brainstorming—find a topic and then select ideas related to it.

The process for freewriting:

  • Find a place to focus and concentrate on writing.
  • Set a timer for at least 10 minutes.
  • Start writing and don’t stop to go back and edit your words.
  • Keep writing even if you can’t think of what to say. When you’re stuck, write the words, “I don’t know what to say,” and then continue.
  • Stop writing when you hear the timer’s alarm.
  • Read what you wrote and circle, highlight or underline any exciting ideas.
  • Ask, “Can I write an essay or paper about any of these ideas?”
  • Select your idea and decide if you want to try looping for more ideas related to your topic.

The process for looping:

The process of looping is identical to that of freewriting.  Set a timer and write for a certain length of time without stopping. Then focus your writing on the topic you selected from the freewrite.  When you finish your writing,  you will circle, highlight, or underline interesting ideas related to your writing topic.   Then ask, “What ideas would be good to include in my essay or paper?”

Freewriting and looping are great for people who don’t like a lot of structure and want a lot of flexibility when they are prewriting.  It is not the best choice for people who don’t want to write a lot of sentences in a short time.

Prewriting Activity 4: Journalist’s Questions

This prewriting technique is where you take your main topic and try to answer the 6 questions journalists ask about everything they write:  Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How?

The process for the Journalist’s Questions prewriting activity:

  • Write down your main topic.
  • Ask each question: Who? What? When? Where? How? And Why?  Note: y ou probably won’t be able to answer every question for your topic.
  • Answer questions that fit your main topic.
  • Write detailed answers to these questions.
  • Check and see if any of your answers make you think of other questions.
  • Write down any other questions that come to your mind. These are called follow-up questions.
  • Try to write answers to your follow-up questions.

The Journalist’s Questions prewriting activity is useful for people who are doing some kind of research writing.  These are also helpful questions for people writing a story or a personal narrative.  It is a structured prewriting exercise that is easy to follow, and it helps you develop a lot of content for your writing project.

This technique involves a lot of writing, but the writing is focused on answering specific questions.

Prewriting Activity 5: Creating an Outline

This prewriting exercise is for organizing your main idea, thesis statement, and all the content you’ll include in your essay or paper. It’s not a prewriting activity for choosing a topic and deciding on ideas.

It’s only helpful when you have a good idea of what you want to include in your paper.   

Here’s the process for creating an outline:

  • Write a title at the head of the outline.
  • Add the introduction, which includes: the hook—a sentence that engages your audience, so they want to keep reading your essay (fact, interesting story, statistic, quotation, etc.) &  the main idea and thesis statement.
  • Outline the body of your essay with the main ideas connected to the thesis statement.  Add supporting details and evidence.
  • Outline the conclusion which restates your thesis statement and explains the significance of that thesis.

Here’s what you include in an outline for a 5- Paragraph Essay.

5 Paragraph Essay Outline

You can add more pieces to the outline if you’re writing a longer paper.  If you’re writing a long research paper, you can divide your paper into headings. You’ll see an example of how to do this at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/544/01/

Outlines are perfect for you if you like to have a structured plan for what to write.  They make it easy for you to transfer your ideas into paragraphs.   But, if you are a person who likes to be flexible in their writing then you may not find this activity useful.   There are other ways to organize your notes and ideas before writing.

Prewriting Activity 6:  Journaling!

Do you want to have a source of endless writing ideas?   Journaling is an excellent habit for you.

You can keep a journal for your academic studies, or if you like journaling, you can keep a journal for each of your courses.  All you do is write down what you think or feel about what you’ve read, studied, or learned for that day.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What’s the most intriguing thing I read about? Why is it interesting? 
  • What ideas from class did I agree with and why?
  • What did I disagree with and why?
  • What did I learn today?
  • What confused me?

You can explore many other questions in a daily academic journal.  I limit my writing to 1 page, and many times I write a lot less. I also have a personal journal, and I find many writing ideas from this journal too.

The advantage of journaling is that when you don’t know what to write about, you can look back at other things that interested you. Then you can decide if you want to write an essay or paper on those topics.

Try one or more of techniques with your writing and see which ones work the best for you.

 Also, if you want more support and help with academic writing, join the Academic Writing Success Community!   I’ll send you my free  How to Organize an Amazing Academic Essay Cheat Sheet! 

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The Writing Process: Prewriting | Drafting | Revising | Proofreading | The Final Draft

The Writing Process: Prewriting

After you have decided on a subject for your essay, it is time to begin the writing process. If you think that you will have a well-written final draft of your essay after sitting down in front of your computer for an hour or two, it probably would be a good idea to adjust your expectations. There usually are several steps that writers go through as they are working on an essay, and the process of writing an essay usually takes much longer than just an hour or two.   

It is important to see writing an essay as a process. If you decided to build yourself a house, you probably would not begin by going to the lumberyard and loading your truck full of lumber, bricks, and nails. There is a lot of work to do before you get to this point, including the drawing up of plans for what you want to build and the determining of the building supplies that you will need. In a way, the same general idea applies to writing essays. We use the term "prewriting" to refer to the work you do on your essay before you actually begin writing a draft of it.

This page presents a few common prewriting strategies that can be helpful in getting you started on an essay. This information might be especially helpful if you have ever claimed to have "writer's block" when you had trouble working on a writing assignment. Why do we not suffer from "algebra block," "geography block," "chemistry block," or other such maladies? Could "writer's block" really just be a matter of not knowing about the prewriting strategies that help writers start writing? 

pre writing essay sample

For our example, the writer, John, is asked to write an essay of at least 800 words on the photograph Migrant Mother , by Dorothea Lange. The approach to the subject is up to John, but the essay is supposed to include both descriptions of the photograph and interpretation of the meaning that the photograph expresses. A copy of the photograph appears to the right. Just click the image to see a larger version.

There is no one "correct" way to approach the writing process: whatever approach works well for you probably is the best approach for you. But if you are not an experienced writer, it may be helpful to experiment with some of the steps explained here. The example we use here involves an essay about a photograph, but the same prewriting and writing strategies can be applied to just about any writing assignment.

We will follow the writer step-by-step through the writing process, from the prewriting activities to the proofreading of the final draft. We begin, of course, with prewriting. This page presents several prewriting activities that may be useful as you begin working on an essay. 

1. Thinking

It may seem odd to list "thinking" as a part of the prewriting process, but this usually is the first step.

In the first few days after John is given his writing assignment, he thinks about his subject and what he might write about it. " Migrant Mother . What exactly is a 'migrant'? I'll look that up," John thinks as he is driving home from school: "The family sure looks poor. That's obvious. But is that the only point of the photo?" The next morning, while taking a shower, John continues to think about the photograph: "The title indicates that the woman is a mother, so those must be her children around her. Is the photographer trying to tell us something about what it means to be a mother?" John's questions lead him back to the photograph, and he decides that it is time to examine the subject of his essay more carefully.

The first step of the writing process can occur almost anywhere--while you are driving, while you are taking a shower, while you are mowing the lawn. The first step simply is to think about your subject.

2. Questioning

As suggested by John's thoughts about his subject, asking questions can be an important early step in the writing process. In a sense, we could even say that an essay answers questions about its subject, so a good early step can be to ask questions about the subject of the essay.

John has been thinking about the photograph, and his thoughts have led him to questions about it, so John decides that writing down his questions might help him figure out what he could say about the photograph in his essay.

Sitting down to his computer, John opens the word processor, looks at a copy of Migrant Mother , and starts typing a list of questions.

  • Why are the children standing around their mother?
  • Why are the children looking away from the camera?
  • Why does the child on the right have his hands up around his face?
  • Why do the children have sort of strange haircuts?
  • Why is the front of the mother's shirt opened up a little?
  • Where is this family?
  • What is behind the family in the photograph?
  • Why does she have her hand up against her cheek?
  • Why isn't the mother looking at the photographer?
  • What is the mother looking at?
  • Where is the father?

Answering some of these questions--such as "Where is the father?"--would require John to research his topic. The assignment does not call for any research or the documentation of sources, so if John does look up information about his subject, he will need to be careful only to use facts considered "common knowledge" (general information about the subject that can be found in many different sources) and he will need to make sure to put the information into his own words.

However, John finds that he is able to offer answers to some of his questions. For example, while asking himself, "Why are the children standing around their mother?" John thought that maybe the children are frightened or upset about their situation and are relying on the mother for comfort and support. He does not know this for a fact, but it seems like a logical conclusion that can be supported by the photograph itself. He then considers that the baby, resting in the mother's lap, is also relying on the mother. These ideas lead John to consider that the photograph might be suggesting something about the mother being a source of comfort for her children during the difficult times that the family is experiencing.

Asking questions helps John start to discover some meaning in the photograph that he had not noticed earlier.

3. Freewriting

You have a writer in you and an editor in you. The writer just wants to write. The editor, on the other hand, likes to critique what you write. In fact, the editor can be overwhelming at times, interrupting your writing with constant questions, making you doubt almost every sentence that you write. The editor asks, "Is the comma in the right place? Is this the right word? Is this confusing? Will people understand what I mean? Is this a complete sentence" The editor plays an important role. Without the editor, our writing would be a mess, but during the prewriting process, it might be useful to ignore the editor for a while and just let the writer free. That can occur with freewriting.

John decides that a few minutes of freewriting might help him explore more ideas about the photograph. He opens up a blank page in his word processor, gives himself ten minutes to type, puts the photograph where he can see it, and just starts typing. John's goal is to type as many words about the photograph that he can in just ten minutes, without stopping to change anything, in fact, without even stopping. As soon as John realizes that he has stopped, he just gets his fingers moving on the keyboard. As he is typing, John does not even look at the screen. That's what the editor in him wants to do, but this time is devoted to the writer alone. Below is what John typed in his ten minutes of freewriting.

What John has here is a mess, but this is a sign that he successfully prevented the editor in him from interfering with his writing. (Conversely, this example shows the importance of the editor's job later on in the writing process!) John has attempted to capture on the page some of those fleeting thoughts that were running through his mind in the ten minutes that he was thinking about the photograph. The biggest challenge for John during the ten minutes that he was prewriting was to just let himself write without stopping to make any corrections or to read or correct what he had written, but he did it.   

Did John come up with anything valuable? Maybe.

Notice that there are some ideas here that could eventually find their way into John's essay: that the photograph was taken during the "Dust Bowl" days, when many migrant workers were suffering from extreme poverty and hardship; that the recent haircuts of the children suggest that the mother is trying to take care of her family; that the mother may have been breast feeding her baby; that the photograph being in black and white adds to its overall impression; that the mother looks as it she is trying to be strong for her children and looks as if she is thinking about what to do. All of these are good ideas.

By freewriting, John was able to discover some new ideas about the photograph. It is unlikely that any of the sentences in John's freewriting passage will end up in his essay--most of the sentences are weak--but freewriting did prove to be a good way for John to generate ideas that he might want to present and develop in an essay, once he gets to the stage of actually writing a draft.

Some people find it difficult to allow their words just to flow out on the page with a freewriting activity. "Listing" is a different technique that can also lead to many ideas that could become good material for an essay.

Listing, as the name indicates, simply involves making a list. For his listing activity, John used his word processor to write down anything he could think of concerning Migrant Mother . He wrote down the information in the form of a list, without any logic to the order of items on the list.

Here is the list that John came up with:

  • 1936--Dust Bowl
  • Migrant farm workers
  • dirty clothing
  • children hiding their faces
  • children ashamed
  • baby sleeping
  • some clothes too big
  • sleeve of mother's shirt torn
  • mother's hand on cheek
  • children with "bowl" haircuts
  • family in a tent
  • mother looking ahead
  • mother's eyes squinted or focused
  • mother's forehead wrinkled
  • mother just breastfed baby
  • baby has fat cheeks
  • children leaning on mother
  • mother had dirty, short fingernails
  • family has not bathed in a while
  • photo is in black and white
  • mother is not looking at the photographer
  • mother has her head up

There is no order to the items on John's list, but after he makes the list, he looks for items that might be related in some way.

By copying and pasting in his word processor, John brings together one group of items from his list that he feels are logically related:

  • mother had her head up

Together, all of these items give John the impression that the mother is not ready to give up and might be focused on thinking of a way out of her situation. This may be a good topic for a paragraph in John's essay, as this prewriting activity has made clear that there are at least a few aspects of the photograph that point toward this idea. If John makes this idea one of the topics of his essay, he will return to the photograph and look for more aspects of it that might relate to the same idea.

John now looks over his list again to see if any of the other items logically go together, and he finds that some of them do. This prewriting activity has gone far in helping John develop ideas and in helping him see how some of the specifics of the subject might be logically related.  

5. Clustering

"Clustering" is another prewriting technique that allows the writer to generate ideas and also suggests ways in which the different ideas might be logically related, which can help the writer get a sense of how the essay could eventually be organized. 

John decides to try some clustering to help him with his prewriting on Migrant Mother . John uses pen and paper for this prewriting activity. He begins by writing the words "Migrant Mother" in the middle of a page, and he then circles those words. From this circle in the center, John draws lines out to sets of other circles words, each representing a major idea coming from the center. Then, around these other sets of words, John draws still more lines, circles, and words as he attempts to create a diagram of ideas about the painting. Below is an illustration of John's clustering activity.

pre writing essay sample

As with the other prewriting activities, John had generated some ideas here, but he has also given a sense of organization to those ideas. From the " Migrant Mother " bubble, we have three major ideas: the family being poor, the mother supporting the family, and the mother not giving up. Then, from each of the bubbles containing these ideas, we have aspects of the photograph that relate to it. For example, "baby in lap" and "breastfed baby" are connected to the "mother supporting family" bubble because they both relate to the idea that the mother is supporting her family.

Clustering also can be beneficial because it allows you to "see" how various facts and ideas might be logically related. After his clustering activity, John is getting closer to the point when he can begin a draft of his essay.

6. Outlining

"Outlining" is related to both listing and clustering. Sometimes, especially for long papers, outlines can be quite detailed, but even a short outline can be helpful in giving the writer ideas and a sense of organization for an essay. After looking carefully at Migrant Mother , John feels that he has identified three important ideas that might be the focus of his essay. He writes down these ideas:

  • The family is living in severe poverty.
  • The mother is trying to care for her family.
  • The mother is determined not to be defeated by her difficulties.

John thought carefully about the order of ideas for his outline, and this seemed to be the best order: start with how the family is poor and then discuss how the mother is strong and will survive. This order seemed to make more sense to John than discussing how the mother is strong and then discussing how the family is poor. Here, John is thinking about the "progression of ideas" for his essay. Notice as well than John had put his ideas in the form of complete sentences. This is helpful because a complete sentence presents a completed thought, better conveying John's meaning than just a few words would. 

Even a brief outline such as this one can be helpful, but John thinks that adding more information to his outline might make it easier for him to write a draft of his essay, so, under each major topic, he adds some details that might be used to help him develop his essay.

  • The family is living in severe poverty. a. The mother is a migrant--a poor farm worker. b. It is 1936, during the "Dust Bowl." c. Their clothing is dirty and tattered. d. Some of the clothing is too big. e. Their skin is dirty: they have not bathed recently. f. They appear to be living in a tent.  
  • The mother is trying to care for her family. a. The mother is at the center of the photograph--the center of the family. b. Two of her children are resting on her shoulders. c. The children appear to have recent haircuts. d. A baby is asleep in her lap. e. The baby may have just been breastfed.  
  • The mother is determined not to be defeated by her difficulties. a. The mother is not looking down in defeat. b. The mother is looking ahead. c. Her hand on her cheek makes her look focused. d. She is not even distracted by the photographer. 

John probably does not have enough information here for a well-developed essay, but his outline gives him an excellent starting point as he begins writing his essay. He can use this outline to get him started, and he can continue to study the photograph to look for additional details that he might describe to help him support and develop his ideas.  

Most likely, no writer will use all of these prewriting activities, but using at least a few of these techniques can make it much easier to begin writing an essay. People who sit down to a blank screen and cannot understand why an essay is not just flowing onto the page probably have left out some important steps in the writing process.

After John had finished with his prewriting activities, he feels confident that he will be able to start writing a draft of an essay, so John begins the drafting process.

The journey continues with Drafting .   

Copyright Randy Rambo , 2019.

Trending Post : 12 Powerful Discussion Strategies to Engage Students

8 Meaningful Essay Prewriting Activities

Teaching writing? Sometimes students shut down before they write a single word. Teachers can address this dilemma by making the brainstorming process meaningful. How? Engage students through differentiation and scaffolding. When students are provided with choices, they feel less helpless, become more confident, and produce better compositions. Try using one or more of these essay prewriting activities to generate solid ideas and set your students up for success.


When authors experience writer’s block, one of the strategies they use to overcome the hurdle is to change their location. Allowing students to write in the library, outside, or at a coffee shop (field trip!) can reap results worthy of reading. Alternate settings are the perfect and simplest option for differentiating prewriting. Plus, almost all prewriting strategies can adapt to an outdoor location.


Regardless of whether I’m working with advanced students or struggling writers, all students benefit from class brainstorming sessions where the teacher models expectations and scaffolds students from teacher-led instruction to guided practice and, finally, to independence.

What might this look like? After assigning an essay, the first order of business is to show students how to begin.  In doing so, collectively brainstorm topics , research to find support, and fill out graphic organizers. Doing this as a class the first time through is less overwhelming for many students, and it helps students follow along if they have step-by-step directions that they can refer back to later.


Some students have difficulty transcribing their ideas onto paper and organizing their thoughts logically. In these instances, it’s necessary to talk students through their prewriting. As you discuss ideas one-on-one, have students take notes on their prewriting materials.

For something new and unique, give students Play-Doh or another manipulative and ask them to create their response to a topic. As an accommodation, teachers or peer partners can jot down the information as students think aloud about what they would like to write.


You might be surprised to find that simply offering students several different options for how they would like to complete their prewriting increases motivation. Possibilities might include, but are not limited to, color-coded graphic organizers , flow charts, webs, trees, outlines, journaling, sketch notes, mind mapping, acronyms , and free writing.

When modeling prewriting, try demonstrating with different strategies. As students begin to brainstorm for their own topic, allow them freedom to choose which prewriting approach they’d like to use.

Teaching writing? Try these 8 prewriting strategies to help students approach their essays with confidence. #HighSchoolELA #prewriting


As Kelly Gallagher writes, “ If we want kids to write, we have to take them swimming in the genre first.  Start by wading before taking them to the deep end.”  An integral facet of the brainstorming process should be allowing students to get knee deep in examples of the genre we expect them to write. Teachers can use examples they have written, essays written by previous students, or even published pieces and novels, depending on the genre of study.

Not sure where to start?  Illinois Literacy in Action has some great lists for argumentative, informative, and narrative mentor texts. Here are some of the models I use with students.


Students can learn quite a bit from one other. As a meaningful prewriting activity, give them time to discuss their ideas with a peer or a small group, and listen to the feedback they offer. Not only does this strategy allow students valuable time to mull over their ideas, but also it provides an avenue for teachers to teach students how to have meaningful and productive discussions about writing.


One of the best ways I’ve found to differentiate prewriting for ability levels and interests is to have lengthy class discussions about possible topics. Generally, I lead these conversations, but I have also found success in having students participate in carousel activities.

To start, hang large sheets of butcher paper around the room. Then, brainstorm several possible topics for the essay. Write those topics at the top of the papers. Following, students divide into small groups and work together to devise possible angles they might use to approach each topic. In doing so, they are writing questions as well as possible thesis statements and supporting ideas. Sometimes they come up with related topics as well.

Students move from station to station and add their thoughts. To wrap up, each small group is assigned to present ideas for a given topic to the whole group.


Writing a research paper? A successful means of engaging students is by providing an appropriate anticipatory set. Capture students’ interest in topics by incorporating source material and discussing it as a group. Showing them related video clips, reading high-interest articles as a class, and bringing in guest speakers for the subject are all ideal approaches. Interest is a game-changer when it comes to writing.

If students are still struggling with the research element of brainstorming, scaffold their experience by providing a couple articles to get them started. Here are 14 additional scaffolding strategies for building confidence and increasing students’ success with writing.

Writing can be challenging and frustrating, or it can be freeing and therapeutic. By scaffolding and differentiating the prewriting process, we reduce the likelihood that students will struggle. Prewriting activities needn’t be fancy or complex to be effective and meaningful.  Click here  to access a free argumentative prewriting resource to scaffold your students’ prewriting experience.

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Sample Essay with Transitions


William E. Hoy was born hearing in Houckstown, Ohio, on May 23, 1862. He became deaf before he was three years old.

Later , he attended the Columbus “Ohio” School for the Deaf from the age of ten to the age of eighteen. As a student, he learned to play baseball; from then on , he was always involved with baseball.

Following his high school graduation, Hoy started playing semi-professional baseball while he worked as a shoemaker. Eventually , Hoy began playing professional baseball in 1886 for Oshkosh (Wisconsin) of the Northwestern League.

In 1888, he started as an outfielder with the old Washington Senators. Hoy was a small man, and he was fast. As a result , he was an outstanding base runner. In addition , he was very good at stealing bases during his career.

In fact, during the 1888 major league season, he stole 82 bases. Moreover , he was the Senators leading hitter in 1888. Most importantly , he invented the arm signals, still used by umpires.

Hoy’s last ball game in 1903 was amazing. At that time he was playing for Los Angeles of the Pacific Coast Winter League. It was a memorable game.

To illustrate , it was foggy; therefore , it was very hard to see the ball. In the ninth inning, while two men were out, Hoy managed to catch the ball in spite of the fog.

Consequently , Los Angeles won the pennant for that year. When his last game was over, he retired from playing baseball. He knew that as he became older he was not playing as well as when he was younger.

Nevertheless , he stayed very busy running a dairy farm near Cincinnati for 20 years and taking several weekly 4 and 10-miles walks.

In October 1961, after so much time away from baseball, Hoy appeared at Crowley Field in Cincinnati. He tossed the first ball of the World Series. Soon, after that , Hoy died on December 15, 1961, at the age of 99.*

Source: *Adapted from: Goodstein, A., and Walworth, M. (1979). Interesting Deaf Americans. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University. Reprinted with permission from the Gallaudet University Alumni Association. Revised by Daphne Goodall & Ellen Beck.


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Modeling essay grading with pre-trained BERT features

  • Published: 11 April 2024

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  • Annapurna Sharma   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-4661-6826 1 &
  • Dinesh Babu Jayagopi 2  

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Writing essays is an important skill which enables one to clearly write the ideas and understanding of certain topic with the help of language articulation and examples. Writing essay is a skill so is the grading of those essays. It requires a lot of efforts to grade these essays and the task becomes tedious and repetitive when the student to teacher ratio is high. As with any other repetitive task, the intervention of technology for automated essay grading has been thought of long back. However, the main challenge in automated essay grading lies in the understanding of language construction, word usage and presentation of idea/ argument/ narration. Language complexity makes natural language understanding a challenging task. In this work, we show our experiments with pre-trained static word embeddings like GloVe, fastText and pre-trained contextual model Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) for the task of automated essay grading. For the regression task, we have used Long Short-Term Memory (LSTM) and Support Vector Regression (SVR) models under various feature settings framed from the learnt embeddings. The results are shown with the ASAP-AES dataset on all 8 prompts. Our work shows average Quadratic Weighted Kappa (QWK) of 0.81 and 0.71 with SVR and LSTM on in-domain test set essays, respectively. The SVR model shows a better QWK than the human-human agreement of 0.75. To the best of our knowledge, our SVR model with pre-trained BERT embeddings achieve the highest average QWK reported on ASAP-AES data set. We further show the performance of our approach with adversary samples generated using permuted essays and off-topic essays. We experimentally show that our LSTM model though does not show high QWK score with human assigned grade but is robust against the adversarial settings considered.

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Author Annapurna Sharma is supported by Visvesvaraya PhD Scheme, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), Government of India under the grant number– MEITY-PHD-2541.

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Annapurna Sharma

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Sharma, A., Jayagopi, D.B. Modeling essay grading with pre-trained BERT features. Appl Intell (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10489-024-05410-4

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