Teaching the Art of Prewriting in Composition

Teaching the Art of Prewriting in Composition

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 8,931 views

Often students don’t have anything to say on a given topic, or think they don’t.

The conventional remedy has been to teach a series of “brainstorming strategies” such as “clustering,” which include elaborate diagrams and networks of ideas. I know few actual writers who use these strategies, however. To me, at any rate, these conventional “prewriting” exercises prove distracting--causing me to focus more on the diagram itself than on the ideas I am supposed to be coming up with.

Improve Checking Several Alternatives

  1. 1

    Brain Dump

    Just dump everything you know on the topic on the page. If it’s only two things, write those down. Then study them, and consider what they make you think of. Write that down, too. If the writer keeps doing this, a series of ideas will be recorded, some of which will certainly be discarded, but also there will be a few that can be kept and developed.

  2. 2


    Do some free association. Write ideas as they come to you: use free association, starting with the topic but perhaps ending up elsewhere. This can lead to some valuable material that can be used in a later draft.

  3. 3

    Own Experience

    Consider your own experience on the topic. You have none? Are you sure? If you have not been the victim of a crime, for example, you probably know someone who has or have read about it in the paper.

  4. 4


    Prewriting is the perfect time to do some research on a topic. For example, I recently wrote a story involving pyramid schemes, something I knew “two things” about when I started off. However, by investing a couple hours by visiting a several websites, such as the FBI’s, I developed some working expertise on the topic, enough to write the story. This research also developed my knowledge base in general and gave me additional information and ideas for the story and well as future stories and essays.

  5. 5


    Interviewing experts on a topic can not only help you with developing your current essay or story but also give you ideas for future stories. In interviewing a police officer, for example, about a murder mystery I was writing that suicides, even if they are almost certainly suicides, are initially investigated as homicides--that “homicide” is the default assumption on arriving at a crime scene in which someone has died, even it is an apparent suicide--a host of new story ideas came up. Similarly, in researching topics of winemaking and pyramid schemes for fiction, I was given ideas for nonfiction works as well.

  6. 6

    Recycling Material

    Have you written about this topic before? Can you use the material again, with a different slant?

I have written numerous works, but fiction and nonfiction, on the topic of immigrating and the immigrant experience. It is such a broad topic, it can be approached in such a number of ways: psychologically, socially, legally, in both fiction and nonfiction, that any number of works can come out of it, both fiction and nonfiction, without danger of staleness and repetition.

Consider Several Ways to Teach Prewriting

  1. 1

    Skip the Confusing Diagrams

    Teaching students to “cluster” and so forth just creates confusion and focus on just the format of the diagram instead of the ideas that go into it. I would encourage students to just freewrite, to just put down on paper everything they know, think they know, and feel about a topic, without a focus on form or filling in little bubbles and boxes.

  2. 2

    Give Out Prompts

    Written prompts, pictures, and interesting objects all create ideas for nonfiction and fiction works. A simple prompt such as “Write about Rule Number One” brings about such diverse responses about what should be “rule number one” that many different essays and stories can come out of this.

  3. 3

    Discussion Ideas with Peers

    Just the act of getting “out of their heads” and interacting with someone else can give students ideas on a topic, a new perspective or expertise/knowledge base, that she did not have before. For example, discussing such topics of gender relations and roles, or treatment of children and the elderly within a family or society, will introduce to the writer diverse experiences and opinions to inform her writing.

  4. 4

    Research the Topic

    Doing some basic preliminary research on a topic can also help in developing ideas: reliable websites such as the Mayo Clinic’s will give out information on the course of and treatment of a disease like diabetes, which the writer can use to develop her work. Teaching students how to locate and judge important and reliable websites will help them in their research of a topic.

  5. 5

    Interview an Expert

    I am lucky enough to live on the same street as a retired homicide detective and interviewed him about how a homicide investigation is conducted and took extensive notes. I didn’t use them all on the story I was writing at the time but will use them on various pieces in the future. I also got a feel for the everyday life and routine work of a police officer, which is just as important. Arrange for students, if possible, to meet with and talk to community members or other faculty with areas of expertise related to their writing.

  6. 6

    “Field Trips”

    Field trips or a trip to a place relevant to the writing topic is also important. For example, in writing a story about California’s wine country, I made several trips to actual wineries to get information and an understanding of the day to day life at a winery. Arranging for students to visit places to inform their writing--local job sites, for example--can give them exposure to the larger world and material to write about. It is hard to write in a vacuum.

In short, we tend to think of, or have been taught, that “prewriting” is an isolated process of drawing little diagrams and wracking our brains for nonexistent ideas. That’s why many novice writers rush through or ignore this stage, seeing it as waste of time. However, ideas do not, of course, form out of a vacuum but rather through interaction with the larger world--the world of building information and ideas not only through introspection but also through interacting and interviewing others and researching the topic.

What are some techniques you use for prewriting?

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