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Before You Start Writing That Paper... A Guide to Prewriting Techniques

 

Every Writer's Dilemma 

Are you writing a paper and don't know where to start? Even with a clear prompt, a grasp on the material, and lots of ideas, getting started on any paper can be a challenge. All writers face the dilemma of looking at a blank computer screen without having any idea of how to translate their thoughts into a coherent and carefully articulated essay. You may know all about drafting and editing, but how do you get to that first draft? What comes between a blank computer screen and that polished final paper anyway? 

 

Prewriting!

The answer to that final question is quite simple. The best and most successful papers always start with prewriting.

So, what is prewriting anyway?

Good question! Prewriting is a term that describes any kind of preliminary work that precedes the actual paper writing. It doesn't necessarily have to be writing. In fact, prewriting can just be concentrated thinking about what you want to write your paper on. Various prewriting techniques are expanded upon below. However, know that you don't have to use all of them, nor is any one better than any of the others. Successful prewriting (and paper writing!) occurs when the writer finds what works best for him/her.

What are good prewriting techniques? 

I'm glad you asked! In the rest of this handout, you'll find a variety of useful techniques to help you get started on pretty much any writing project. If you're not sure where to start, just pick one and try it out. After you've tested a couple, you'll probably develop a sense of your most successful prewriting strategies and can choose the techniques that best suit your writing and thinking style. 

 

Brainstorming

Brainstorming refers to quickly writing down or taking inventory of all your thoughts as fast as they come to you. In this sense, your ideas are like a gigantic storm swirling around in your brain, and it's your job to get them out of your head. Writing of some kind is very helpful in brainstorming, as it can often be difficult to keep track of all your thoughts and ideas without writing them down. However, your writing does not have to be formal. Many writers simply use bullet points to mark all their ideas; in this sense, brainstorming often looks more like a list, rather than a coherent piece of writing (which is totally fine at this stage!). When brainstorming, don't feel pressured to connect, defend, fully articulate, or censor your ideas. If you allow yourself to simply pour out all the thoughts that are in your head, following them wherever they lead, you might come up with a really interesting topic, theme, motif, etc. to focus your paper on. 

Example: Brainstorming for Toni Morrison's Beloved.

  • Sethe's relationship with her children.
  • Significance of milk and the breast. Possible connection to mother/child relationship.
  • Familial relationships under slavery. Perhaps Morrison is examining (or complicating) this through Sethe's extreme relationship with her children. Possible connection to milk and breast imagery. Breastfeeding her children may be so important because mother/child relationshps are often destroyed under slavery. 
  • Motherly love. Sethe seems to think murder can be taken as an act of motherly love. Maybe she's rewriting the role of the mother under slavery. 
  • Return of Beloved and inability to explain/justify murder. Even though Sethe claims that the murder was right, she seems conflicted. 

 

Freewriting 

Freewriting is very similar to brainstorming in that it gets all your thoughts out onto paper. However, where brainstorming often looks more like a list of ideas, freewriting usually takes the shape of more formal sentences. Even so, grammar, punctuation, and the like should be far from your mind. Like brainstorming, you should follow the flow of your ideas, and you shouldn't pressure yourself to fully tease out everything. There's plenty of time for that later! And once again, I want to stress that you SHOULD NOT censor your ideas. You may be quick to discount an idea, but if you give it a chance, it may take you somewhere totally unexpected and extremely productive in terms of writing a successful paper. 

Example: Freewriting for Beloved.

I have to write a paper on Beloved for my English class. There's a lot to write on in this book. When I first read it, I noticed a lot of things about Sethe and her relationship with her kids. Her motherly relationship with her children seemed important to her, especially in terms of breastfeeding them. Perhaps this is symbolic of something. Like milk and the breast represent motherhood itself. This might be why it was so important for Sethe to get milk to her baby; she may have wanted to retain that motherly bond. Perhaps that's important because of the fact that slavery interferes with the mother/child relationship. In slavery, Sethe and her children are just her master's property, so she's not the ultimate guardian/owner of them. Maybe breastfeeding is her way of reestablishing the bond that slavery attempts to destroy by making humans into property. 

Clustering or Mindmapping

Once again, clustering and mindmapping, like brainstorming and freewriting, allow you to take inventory of your ideas. However, they both focus you on a central word (usually something that embodies a theme, topic, motif, etc. that is important to your ideas), which you then work out from by associating other words, thoughts, and ideas to that central word. These may be very useful techniques for extremely visual people. A lot of online diagrams of clustering have the central word in a circle, with all the associated words in their own circles and lines connecting them back to the central word. Similarly, there are very elaborate and decorative examples of mindmaps online. Be as creative as you want—just not at the expense of your ideas themselves! Using these techniques allows you to very easily visualize all the ideas that are in your head.

Example: Clustering for Beloved. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Question-Asking 

This is one of the best and most useful approaches to get yourself started on writing a paper, especially if you really have no idea where to start. Here, you write down all the questions that seem relevant to your material. These should definitely be legitimate questions, possibly ones you have yourself. By generating a lot of questions, as well as forcing yourself to contemplate answers to those questions, you'll get out a lot of the ideas, issues, thoughts, etc. that could potentially get you started on paper writing. Similarly, a lot of great essay topics come out of a question. By focusing on a question that is not easily answered, you'll have a framework for your argument. 

Example: Question-Asking for Beloved.

  • Why does Morrison focus on Sethe's relationship with her children?
  • What is the significance of mother/child relationships in Beloved?
  • Is milk and breastfeeding important? Why? How does it connect to other themes in the book? Could it be symbolic? If so, what does it symbolize?
  • How does slavery affect Sethe's relationshp with her children? Is Morrison addressing this? If so, how?
  • What does Sethe's murder of her baby signify? Is it clear by the end of the book? Or is it unresolved? How does it connect to slavery, mother/child relationships, and other themes? 

Journaling

This technique is best used as an on-going process. While brainstorming, freewriting, clustering, mindmapping, and question-asking can wait until you have your paper assignment and are thinking about where to start, journaling is best throughout your engagement with whatever material you could potentially be writing on. Journaling can involve aspects of all previously mentioned techniques. However, the idea behind it is to write down whatever strikes you about the material when it strikes you. That way, rather than trying to remember your first impressions and ideas about the material, you'll have them already conveniently written down. Although many ideas that strike us in the moment don't lead to great papers, many of our initial thoughts become the seeds of a successful essay. 

Example: Journaling for Beloved.

On page (x), Sethe mentions milk and breastfeeding. This seems really important to her, especially as a mother. Is this a theme Morrison is developing? Possibly the relationship between mothers and children. 

On page (x), Morrison describes how Sethe murdered her baby. Why is the detail so vivid? If Sethe's trying to argue that she did it out of motherly love, why does Morrison make the murder so graphic? Also, what does slavery have to do with this? Does the fact that Sethe murdered her baby to protect her from slavery justify her actions? 

On page (x), Morrison writes that Sethe is constantly trying to explain and justify the murder. Elsewhere, Sethe defends it as the right thing to do. Why this conflict? Does this tie into other themes? What is Morrison trying to say?

Outlining

Outlining can be extremely helpful for some writers, but extremely restrictive for others. Also, it's difficult to jump into outlining without having done some prelimiary work with one of the other techniques. Outlining requires that you have a good sense of your ideas, themes, thoughts, approach, argument, etc. This is why many writers cannot use outlining; for some, a good sense of what you're writing about comes through the actual writing process. You may start off with a sense of what you'll argue, but often, it changes and molds into a coherent argument as you write the paper. However, if you're one of those writers who has a clear sense of your argument from the beginning and you want a way to organize your ideas before starting to write the paper, then outlining is for you! 

For outlining, most usually use bullet points to organize how they'll structure their paper. Beginning with the introduction, lay out your main point/argument. From there, go through each paragraph, highlighting the main idea, evidence, and analysis you'll be using. Be sure to check that it ties into the previous paragraph, as well as your overall argument. Finally, sum up your argument in your conclusion, pointing to the larger significance of your essay's claims.

For those of you who don't like outlining, but find moving straight into the actual writing process more productive, reverse outlining can be very useful. This is where you outline your paper after you've written it. This is extremely helpful when checking to make sure that all your paragraphs move logically from one idea to the next, and that they all work to support your larger argument. 

Example: Outline for an essay on Beloved

Introduction

—Focus on how Morrison highlights the importance of history in terms of slavery and the African American community in her book.

—Thesis: Morrison stresses the necessity of an active communal preservation, retrieval, and even writing of a personal history that many have tried to forget, ignore, or make impersonal.

1st paragraph:

—Topic sentence: In Beloved, Morrison shows the necessity of community and active participation to history's preservation and retrieval by highlighting the importance of telling one's personal story to others.

—Evidence:

•  “They sang it out and beat it up, garbling the words so they could not be understood; tricking the words so their syllables yielded up other meanings” (128). 

•  Similarly, Sethe is able to retrieve her forgotten history by “telling” Beloved, who has “distance from the events itself,” stories from her past, as Morrison writes, “she was  remembering something she had forgotten she knew” (Morrison 69, 73).

—Close reading analysis.

2nd paragraph:

—Topic sentence:  And Morrison, through the figure of Beloved, who represents not only Sethe's, but also slavery's history itself, accentuates the need for an active communal retrieval and rewriting of history by illustrating the dangerous effects of an unresolved past on the present. 

—Evidence: 

•  “The flesh between [Sethe's] forefinger and thumb was thin as China silk and there wasn't a piece of clothing that didn't sag on her. Beloved...was getting bigger, plumper by the day” (Morrison 281).

— Close reading analysis.

3rd paragraph:

—Topic sentence: But in Beloved's exorcism, Morrison shows that the past can finally be resolved through an active communal rewriting of personal history. 

—Evidence:

•  “They grouped, murmuring and whispering, but did not step foot in the yard...Denver saw lowered heads, but could not hear the lead prayer—only the earnest syllables of agreement that backed it: Yes, yes, yes, oh yea. Hear me. Hear me. Do it, Maker, do it. Yes” (304-305).

•  “Then Denver, running too. Away from [Beloved] to the pile of people out there. They make a hill. A hill of black people, falling” (309).

—  Close reading analysis.

Conclusion:

— Beloved shows that the past has bearing on the present. It is personal and cannot be forgotten. In terms of modern day readers, Morrison seems to be advocating a retrieval of the history of slavery that is often forgotten.

Helpful Resources 

Allison Lahl

Student Learning Center, University of California, Berkeley

©2008 UC Regents 

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.