Prewriting is the stage of the writing process during which you transfer your abstract thoughts into more concrete ideas in ink on paper (or in type on a computer screen). There are many different kinds of prewriting strategies, and this chapter covers six of them: using experience and observations, freewriting, asking questions, brainstorming, mapping, and searching the Internet. Using the strategies in this chapter can help you overcome the fear of the blank page and confidently begin the writing process.
Although prewriting techniques can be helpful in all stages of the writing process, the following four strategies are best used when initially deciding on a subject:
- Using experience and observations
- Asking questions
At this stage in the writing process, it is acceptable to choose a general subject. Later you will learn more prewriting strategies that will narrow the focus of the subject.
Choosing a Subject
In addition to understanding that writing is a process, writers also understand that choosing a good general subject for an assignment is an essential step. Sometimes your instructor will give you an idea to begin an assignment, and other times your instructor will ask you to come up with a subject on your own. A good subject not only covers what an assignment will be about but also fits the assignment’s purpose and its audience.
In this chapter, you will follow a writer named Mariah as she prepares a piece of writing. You will also be planning one of your own. The first important step is for you to tell yourself why you are writing (to inform, to explain, or some other purpose) and for whom you are writing. Write your purpose and your audience on your own sheet of paper, and keep the paper close by as you read and complete exercises in this chapter.
My purpose: ____________________________________________
My audience: ____________________________________________
Using Experience and Observations
When selecting a subject, you may also want to consider something that interests you or something based on your own life and personal experiences. Even everyday observations can lead to interesting subjects. After writers think about their experiences and observations, they often take notes on paper to better develop their thoughts. These notes help writers discover what they have to say about their subject.
Have you seen an attention-grabbing story on your local news channel? Many current issues appear on television, in magazines, and on the Internet. These can all provide inspiration for your writing.
Reading plays a vital role in all the stages of the writing process, but it first figures in the development of ideas and subject. Different kinds of documents can help you choose a subject and also develop that subject. For example, a magazine advertising the latest research on the threat of global warming may catch your eye in the supermarket. This cover may interest you, and you may consider global warming as a subject. Or maybe a novel’s courtroom drama sparks your curiosity of a particular lawsuit or legal controversy.
After you choose a subject, critical reading is essential to the development of a subject. While reading almost any document, you evaluate the author’s point of view by thinking about his main idea and his support. When you judge the author’s argument, you discover more about not only the author’s opinion but also your own. If this step already seems daunting, remember that even the best writers need to use prewriting strategies to generate ideas.
The steps in the writing process may seem time consuming at first, but following these steps will save you time in the future. The more you plan in the beginning by reading and using prewriting strategies, the less time you may spend writing and editing later because your ideas will develop more swiftly.
Prewriting strategies depend on your critical reading skills. Reading prewriting exercises (and outlines and drafts later in the writing process) will further develop your subject and ideas. As you continue to follow the writing process, you will see how Mariah uses critical reading skills to assess her own prewriting exercises.
Freewriting is an exercise in which you write freely about any subject for a set amount of time (usually three to five minutes). During the time limit, you may jot down any thoughts that come to your mind. Try not to worry about grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Instead, write as quickly as you can without stopping. If you get stuck, just copy the same word or phrase over and over until you come up with a new thought.
Writing often comes easier when you have a personal connection with the subject you have chosen. Remember, to generate ideas in your freewriting, you may also think about readings that you have enjoyed or that have challenged your thinking. Doing this may lead your thoughts in interesting directions.
Quickly recording your thoughts on paper will help you discover what you have to say about a subject. When writing quickly, try not to doubt or question your ideas. Allow yourself to write freely and unselfconsciously. Once you start writing with few limitations, you may find you have more to say than you first realized. Your flow of thoughts can lead you to discover even more ideas about the subject. Freewriting may even lead you to discover another subject that excites you even more.
Look at Mariah’s example. The instructor allowed the members of the class to choose their own subjects, and Mariah thought about her experiences as a communications major. She used this freewriting exercise to help her generate more concrete ideas from her own experience.
Some prewriting strategies can be used together. For example, you could use experience and observations to come up with a subject related to your course studies. Then you could use freewriting to describe your subject in more detail and figure out what you have to say about it.
Freewrite about one event you have recently experienced. With this event in mind, write without stopping for five minutes. After you finish, read over what you wrote. Does anything stand out to you as a good general subject to write about?
Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? In everyday situations, you pose these kinds of questions to get more information. Who will be my partner for the project? When is the next meeting? Why is my car making that odd noise? Even the title of this chapter begins with the question “How do I begin?”
You seek the answers to these questions to gain knowledge, to better understand your daily experiences, and to plan for the future. Asking these types of questions will also help you with the writing process. As you choose your subject, answering these questions can help you revisit the ideas you already have and generate new ways to think about your subject. You may also discover aspects of the subject that are unfamiliar to you and that you would like to learn more about. All these idea-gathering techniques will help you plan for future work on your assignment.
When Mariah reread her freewriting notes, she found she had rambled and her thoughts were disjointed. She realized that the subject that interested her most was the one she started with, the media. She then decided to explore that subject by asking herself questions about it. Her purpose was to refine media into a subject she felt comfortable writing about. To see how asking questions can help you choose a subject, take a look at the following chart that Mariah completed to record her questions and answers. She asked herself the questions that reporters and journalists use to gather information for their stories. These are sometimes called the 5WH Questions.
Prewriting is very purpose driven; it does not follow a set of hard-and-fast rules. The purpose of prewriting is to find and explore ideas so that you will be prepared to write. A prewriting technique like asking questions can help you both find a subject and explore it. The key to effective prewriting is to use the techniques that work best for your thinking process. Freewriting may not seem to fit your thinking process, but keep an open mind. It may work better than you think. Perhaps brainstorming a list of subjects might better fit your personal style. Mariah found freewriting and asking questions to be fruitful strategies to use. In your own prewriting, use the 5WH questions in any way that benefits your planning.
Choose a general subject idea from the prewriting you completed in above. Then read each question and use your own paper to answer the 5WH questions. As with Mariah when she explored her writing subject for more detail, it is OK if you do not know all the answers. If you do not know an answer, use your own opinion to speculate, or guess. You may also use factual information from books or articles you previously read on your subject. Later in the chapter, you will read about additional ways (like searching the Internet) to answer your questions and explore your guesses.
Now that you have completed some of the prewriting exercises, you may feel less anxious about starting a paper from scratch. With some ideas down on paper (or saved on a computer), writers are often more comfortable continuing the writing process. After identifying a good general subject, you, too, are ready to continue the process.
Write your general subject on your own sheet of paper, under where you recorded your purpose and audience. Choose it from among the subjects you listed or explored during the prewriting you have done so far. Make sure it is one you feel comfortable with and feel capable of writing about.
My general subject: ____________________________________________
You may find that you need to adjust your subject as you move through the writing stages (and as you complete the exercises in this chapter). If the subject you have chosen is not working, you can repeat the prewriting activities until you find a better one.
Narrowing the Focus
Narrowing the focus means breaking up the subject into sub-points, or more specific points. Generating lots of sub-points will help you eventually select the ones that fit the assignment and appeal to you and your audience.
After rereading her syllabus, Mariah realized her general subject, mass media, is too broad for her class’s short paper requirement. Three pages are not enough to cover all the concerns in mass media today. Mariah also realized that although her readers are other communications majors who are interested in the subject, they may want to read a paper about a particular issue in mass media.
Brainstorming is similar to list making. You can make a list on your own or in a group with your classmates. Start with a blank sheet of paper (or a blank computer document) and write your general subject across the top. Underneath your subject, make a list of more specific ideas. Think of your general subject as a broad category and the list items as things that fit in that category. Often you will find that one item can lead to the next, creating a flow of ideas that can help you narrow your focus to a more specific paper subject.
The following is Mariah’s brainstorming list:
From this list, Mariah could narrow her focus to a particular technology under the broad category of mass media.
Idea Mapping allows you to visualize your ideas on paper using circles, lines, and arrows. This technique is also known as clustering because ideas are broken down and clustered, or grouped together. Many writers like this method because the shapes show how the ideas relate or connect, and writers can find a focused subject from the connections mapped. Using idea mapping, you might discover interesting connections between subjects that you had not thought of before.
To create an idea map, start with your general subject in a circle in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Then write specific ideas around it and use lines or arrows to connect them together. Add and cluster as many ideas as you can think of.
In addition to brainstorming, Mariah tried idea mapping. Review the following idea map that Mariah created:
Notice Mariah’s largest circle contains her general subject, mass media. Then, the general subject branches into two sub-points written in two smaller circles: television and radio. The sub-point television branches into even more specific subjects: cable and DVDs. From there, Mariah drew more circles and wrote more specific ideas: high definition and digital recording from cable and Blu-ray from DVDs. The radio subject led Mariah to draw connections between music, downloads versus CDs, and, finally, piracy.
From this idea map, Mariah saw she could consider narrowing the focus of her mass media subject to the more specific subject of music piracy.
Searching the Internet
Using search engines on the Internet is a good way to see what kinds of websites are available on your subject. Writers use search engines not only to understand more about the subject’s specific issues but also to get better acquainted with their audience.
When you search the Internet, type some key words from your broad subject or words from your narrowed focus into your browser’s search engine (many good general and specialized search engines are available for you to try). Then look over the results for relevant and interesting articles.
If the search engine results are not what you are looking for, revise your key words and search again. Some search engines also offer suggestions for related searches that may give you better results.
Mariah typed the words music piracy from her idea map into the search engine Google.
Not all the results online search engines return will be useful or reliable. Give careful consideration to the reliability of an online source before selecting a subject based on it. Remember that factual information can be verified in other sources, both online and in print. If you have doubts about any information you find, either do not use it or identify it as potentially unreliable.
The results from Mariah’s search included websites from university publications, personal blogs, online news sources, and lots of legal cases sponsored by the recording industry. Reading legal jargon made Mariah uncomfortable with the results, so she decided to look further. Reviewing her map, she realized that she was more interested in consumer aspects of mass media, so she refocused her search to media technology and the sometimes confusing array of expensive products that fill electronics stores. Now, Mariah considers a paper subject on the products that have fed the mass media boom in everyday lives.
In Exercise 2 you chose a possible subject and explored it by answering questions about it using the 5WH questions. However, this subject may still be too broad. Here, in Exercise 3, choose and complete one of the prewriting strategies to narrow the focus. Use either brainstorming, idea mapping, or searching the Internet.
Please share with a classmate and compare your answers. Share what you found and what interests you about the possible subject(s).
Prewriting strategies are a vital first step in the writing process. First, they help you first choose a broad subject and then they help you narrow the focus of the subject to a more specific idea. An effective subject ensures that you are ready for the next step.
The following checklist can help you decide if your narrowed subject is a good subject for your assignment.
- Am I interested in this subject?
- Would my audience be interested?
- Do I have prior knowledge or experience with this subject? If so, would I be comfortable exploring this subject and sharing my experiences?
- Do I want to learn more about this subject?
- Is this subject specific?
- Does it fit the length of the assignment?
With your narrowed focus in mind, answer the bulleted questions in the checklist for developing a good subject. If you can answer “yes” to all the questions, write your subject on the line. If you answer “no” to any of the questions, think about another subject or adjust the one you have and try the prewriting strategies again.
My narrowed subject: ____________________________________________