For me, prewriting has always been a bit of an ironic term. After all, doesn’t that involve writing things down? But, really, the act of prewriting is actually helpful for a lot of writers. While I have rarely ever done it in the traditional sense, there’s a lot of usefulness in integrating prewriting into your own writing process.
“What the heck is Prewriting?”
In school, we were probably all taught that you needed to do prewriting before starting the first version of a writing assignment. I rarely did this, even in cases that the prewriting itself was part of the grade. I’d just start writing the assignment and go back and fix it later as I developed more ideas. I became a pretty good self-editor at an early age. So, I could skip prewriting, really.
But, not everyone can write a whole paper down straight away. Even the most seasoned writers sitting down to write something that isn’t an assignment can find great value in old school prewriting. How do you start prewriting? You ask yourself some questions.
“What am I writing about?”
What is the topic or theme of what you’re writing? I’m usually able to figure this out in the title of my work or in the first few sentences. But, one benefit of prewriting is that not only can you set your topic or theme in writing before you actually begin the actual work; you can also ask yourself: “is this something I even care about?”
Most times I sat down to write in the past, I used to ask myself “will anyone care about what I’m writing?” That’s a question I’m sure many of you ask yourselves. The trouble is, writing what you think people want to read often leads you to writing something you’re not as invested in.
Believe me, it’s usually fairly obvious to people when someone writes about something they actually care about or are moved by. For some, prewriting is a great way to really decide the direction you want to take with your writing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s for yourself or an assignment. After all, once you put something in writing, it can look a lot different than it did when the thoughts were still in your head.
Prewriting allows you to figure out what you actually care to write about before writing a whole piece you’re unhappy with. Now that I think about it, I could save myself some time by just doing this one part of prewriting. In a way, I already do something like that in my journals. That’s where I often come up with my topics and themes for writing essays. In fact, this very piece came from an idea I wrote in my journal.
Still, formalizing this part of the writing process as the first step in prewriting makes a lot of sense. If you think it will help your writing, by all means adopt this idea.
But, this is only the first part of prewriting.
“Why am I writing about this?”
If you’re writing something for an assignment, this question seems to have an obvious answer: “duh, I have to write it!” But, that’s not what this second stage of prewriting actually means. This is when you decide on the purpose of your writing.
Well, the purpose of your writing should not be “a good grade” in a class or “get me paid” for a freelance assignment. No, by purpose, we want to know what this piece of writing is meant to accomplish, what job it has in Life. One guide to prewriting has a great list of possible purposes to write for:
- to explain
- to inform/instruct
- to describe
- to narrate
- to persuade
- to move
- to amuse/entertain
Your writing can be for multiple purposes. But, typically, you’re looking to focus on only one or two of these purposes – although you can do more. It’s possible to entertain while also being persuasive, for example. You can narrate and move someone through your words. Really, you can mix and match any of these purposes.
If you do take up prewriting, it might be handy to keep this short list of purposes on hand. That way, you can choose the purposes that best fit what you’re trying to accomplish with your writing. Sometimes, an assignment will give you a strictly defined purpose. But, many allow you to add an additional purpose to your writing. Of course, if there are no exact purposes assigned, then just go with however you feel you can best write about your topic or theme.
For example, through this prewriting piece, I am informing while also hopefully explaining why I don’t necessarily do prewriting myself. I find that I tend to have a purpose to explain and inform a lot in my writing, although I aim to amuse, too. Keep in mind you don’t have to try and do all of these things in every piece you write, as you can’t have any one piece do everything, after all.
“Who am I writing this for?”
Ah, yes, the ever important question for a writer: “Who is my audience?”
This is the point in the prewriting process where you may have to reconsider the purpose for your writing. Where is what you’re writing being posted? Even if it’s for your eyes only, you still inevitably have to think about this if you ever plan to publish it.
The whole point of writing is for someone to read it, even if it’s only for yourself. More often than not, you’re trying to reach a specific audience. Your audience is, sadly, not just everybody. You must have an audience in mind whenever you write something.
Myself, I tend to write for other writers, authors, and bloggers, while also considering other creatives. Does that mean my work is only meant for those specific people? Not at all. But, what does it mean, then, to target a specific audience?
Targeting an audience just means that you need to decide who is most likely to get the most out of what you are writing. Then, if you decide your target audience prefers to read a more amusing piece or more of a narrative, you can adjust your “writing parameters” accordingly.
“How am I going to write about this?”
This is where things get juicy in prewriting. Some prewriting guides have you choosing your piece’s genre before figuring out your audience. But, you kind of want to know your audience before deciding how you want to write about it. After all, you haven’t actually started your actual writing yet, so you can go back still and adjust things as needed.
By genres, here’s what sort of things you could be writing:
- news story
- short story
Some themes are better written about through the narrative of a short story, for example. Other times, you may want to write something biographical and descriptive about someone who dealt with a certain topic or theme throughout his or her lifetime. Myself, I tend to prefer the essay, because it’s versatile. I also use poems a lot to express certain ideas. But, I’ve written all of these types of things in one form or another.
When it comes to genres, unless it’s assigned, I always recommend writing to your strengths. Really, you should dabble in every kind of writing that you can. But, focus on your strengths and then work on your weaknesses as side projects to become a more complete writer.
The reason for this should be obvious. The more you grow as a writer, the better all of your writing will be. That’s true even if your forays into other genres seem to fail miserably. The very act of putting together a piece you wouldn’t usually write makes new connections in your brain.
You can learn a lot by writing what you’re weak at, because you could eventually find new strengths. After all, writing is first and foremost a skill. The more you develop your skills in different sorts of writing, the more you can do.
“OK, it’s brain dump time!”
Once you have decided on the topic or theme, the purpose, the audience, and the genre for what you’re writing, it’s planning time! Planning my writing is something I rarely do, although I do brainstorm from time to time when I feel compelled to do so.
However, depending on what you’re writing, there are many ways to collect your thoughts and ideas for prewriting. You can sit and think and take notes on whatever floats through your brain for hours. The problem with this method is you can end up daydreaming and fantasizing, then go write some poems or start some story that will go nowhere, instead. Yeah, I’ve been there and done that. But, there are other, more focused ways to get organized with your writing.
Researching is actually pretty helpful. This is a part of prewriting that I actually have done a fair amount. Reading on the topic or theme you want to write about is helpful for many reasons. Not only does being well-read give you a ton of ideas to start from, but you also know what’s already out there.
You can also interview someone. This is easier than you’d think. People love to talk. If you ask someone who you consider an expert on a subject, and you have a few good questions you’re looking to answer, you’ll likely get a positive response!
In fact, an interview itself makes for some good writing, in addition to what you’re already writing! Plus, interviewing is an awesome skill to develop. But, the greatest benefit of an interview is that you can get an expert source and those can serve as awesome social proofs for your work.
Of course, you can also discuss your topic or theme with friends and family. You may get some ideas that you don’t expect. Never underestimate the people you have right in front of you!
However you pull your ideas together, it’s the one part of prewriting I actually do constantly. You should do it, too. You’ll probably end up getting more ideas than you need for the writing project you started with. As you find as a writer, too much is actually a good thing, because you have other things to write about later!
“Pull it all together now!”
The end of prewriting is now upon us! Now you have to organize your notes and put some sense into them. This is where some people engage in the dreaded outline or do some fancy flow chart or spreadsheet or whatever other crap you want to throw in Microsoft Excel. (Or OpenOffice or Google Sheets, as I prefer!)
Myself, I just pick a few good ideas and develop them in a way that makes sense. Most of the time, I do all this organization in my head. Then again, especially with assignments, I will put headings and sections in a document first before the writing gears really start cranking. It’s not an outline, per se, but it sort of serves the same purpose.
Yes, writing an outline is perfectly OK. But, my own writing tends to be a bit spontaneous, so outlines frustrate me. There’s nothing actually wrong with them, though. I’ve seen flow charts and tables work wonders for some people. Really, however you best get organized in writing, go for it!
That’s it! Now you’re ready to start writing, even though you just did more writing in the prewriting than you’ll probably actually do in the actual drafting. But, hey, it’s more writing, and who doesn’t want to do more of that?
How do you prewrite? Or, are you like me and mostly just fly by the seat of your pants? Whatever your process is, I’d love to hear about it!
~ Amelia <3