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Developing Ideas for Writing (Prewriting)

Developing Ideas for Writing (Prewriting)

How do writers develop ideas for writing? Writers use many techniques, and it's a bet that most of the techniques involve writing itself. Think of a composer creating ideas for a song by playing notes on a piano keyboard. Think of a sculptor creating ideas for a statue by shaping and reshaping pieces of clay. Think of a quilter creating ideas for a quilt pattern by arranging and rearranging different snippets of fabric. All creative endeavors go through preliminary stages in which creators generate ideas, discard some, and play with others that capture their imaginations or that seem to "fit the bill." Each creator develops ideas by getting immersed and "doodling" in the particular medium. And writing is no different. In writer's terms, that preliminary stage of idea development is called "prewriting."

Prewriting usually is messy in terms of having ideas scattered all over the place--think of the quilter with pieces of fabric all over the living room floor. For a lot of people, it's liberating to be messy and not worry about logic, pattern, or final form. That's the purpose of prewriting, to be as free-ranging as possible in generating ideas. If you're aggravated by mess, then prewriting can be thought of as pre-planning, as a means of generating the ideas and data that will help you create the essay draft. Either way, prewriting is a stage of idea incubation, a way to generate ideas and capture your thoughts through writing.

Ideas for writing develop in many ways, and prewriting techniques try to reflect the different ways in which ideas can develop.
Some forms of prewriting are intended to help you bring subconscious ideas and interests into consciousness (a help if you tend to draw a blank when you're asked to "write about what interests you"):

Other forms of prewriting are intended to help you both generate and focus ideas about a subject that you've already chosen:

Still other forms of prewriting are intended to help you generate your own ideas in response to others' ideas:


Freewriting helps you identify subjects in which you are interested. It assumes that you know your interests subconsciously but may not be able to identify them consciously, and it assumes that you can bring your interests into consciousness by writing about them (as writing equals thinking). Freewriting is like stream-of-consciousness writing in which you write down whatever happens to be in your thoughts at the moment. After you do a number of freewritings, you may find that you have come back to certain subjects again and again. Repeated subjects are good for further development through writing, as they obviously are important in your thoughts.

To freewrite, use your computer or get paper and pencil, whatever is more comfortable for you. Get a kitchen timer. Set the timer for five minutes. Write down whatever comes into your head during the five minutes without concerning yourself with complete thoughts, whole sentences, or correct spelling or punctuation. Don't even be concerned about making sense in the writing. Just concentrate on recording your thoughts and filling as much space as possible before the five minutes elapse. If you can't think of anything to write, just write "don't know don't know" until you have other thoughts. If you think that this exercise is stupid, then write "this is stupid this is stupid" until you have other thoughts. Remember, the purpose of freewriting is to fill as much space with as many words as possible in the five minutes of writing time. After the first five minutes, rest a minute and read over what you have written, then follow the procedure at least two more times. Stop at this point and do something else. Do another series of five-minute freewritings later in the day. You may be able to discern common threads (repeated ideas) after you do a number of freewritings. The ideas you repeat are good ones for essays as they obviously are ideas that interest you.

Sample of Freewriting

Read the following set of three freewritings. Can you find recurrent thoughts that would be interesting for the writer to develop? One obvious topic for this writer seems to be "time," or the different ways in which we perceive time (adult vs. children's perception of time, how time is counted in sporting events, etc.). "Annoyances" may be another topic, as the writer mentions that he/she "could go on about this one." Actually, any topic mentioned here is a possibility for an essay ("bugs," "cliches," "greenhouse effect," "puns"); the choice depends on the writer's purpose (research or non-research writing?), interests (for which topic can I most easily generate information?), audience (what will interest my readers?), and parameters (what is the type of writing assigned?).


Brainstorming, like freewriting, is a prewriting technique designed to bring subconscious ideas into consciousness. It's a good technique to use when you know a general subject you're interested in writing about but don't exactly know what aspect of the subject you want to pursue. Brainstorming is like a stream-of-consciousness technique in which you rapidly record all ideas related to a general subject. All ideas are equally acceptable; the purpose of brainstorming is to identify as many ideas related to the subject as possible.
Most likely you have either experienced brainstorming in a business setting or have seen it portrayed on television or film: the ad exec holds up a product and says to the advertising team, "All right, people, let's pitch ideas to sell this soap!," and a person standing by a flip chart jots down ideas frantically as employees shout them out.

Brainstorming also involves a second step. Once you've exhausted your ideas about the subject, you need to go back to those ideas and review them, crossing some off, linking others that are related, and marking some that seem more important than others. You can group and re-group ideas that you've generated, and perhaps decide to pursue some ideas further through more brainstorming or other types of prewriting.

Sample of Brainstorming

medicinal properties
soup recipes
water quality and its effect on flavor of soup
web site for soup
mMediterranean soup with lamb intestines
vegetable soups
soup spots on clothing
certain cities o.k. for men eating soup to sling necktie over shoulder
soup etiquette
side or point of spoon in mouth
stone soup children's story
new diet craze

There are many ways in which the writer could work with these ideas. Some of the ideas fall into logical groups (e.g., "chicken," "vegetable," and "mediterranean" are types of soup). Other ideas can be developed through more prewriting. For example, the writer could take one of the ideas--soup etiquette--and generate a list of the different, accepted ways of eating soup in various parts of the country (something that might eventually turn into a humorous essay and a commentary on regional cultures). Or the writer could decide that a topic such as medicinal properties of soup merited further research and might ask a series of questions to further narrow that topic and generate a research question. And the writer might cross out some ideas that don't seem useful for the writing's purpose (e.g., "soup recipes" may not be appropriate for a college-level analytical research paper). Any of these next steps is appropriate.


Clustering or mapping can help you become aware of different ways to think about a subject. To do a cluster or "mind map," write your general subject down in the middle of a piece of paper. Then, using the whole sheet of paper, rapidly jot down ideas related to that subject. If an idea spawns other ideas, link them together using lines and circles to form a cluster of ideas. The whole purpose here is to use lines and circles to show visually how your ideas relate to one another and to the main subject.

A cluster or map combines the two stages of brainstorming (recording ideas and then grouping them) into one. It also allows you to see, at a glance, the aspects of the subject about which you have the most to say, so it can help you choose how to focus a broad subject for writing. For example, the writer of the map above his or her writing on time devices, leisure time, warps in which time passes, child vs. adult time or time in sports, any of which would provide a logical focus for an essay.

Maintaining a Personal Journal

A personal journal is a good, ongoing way to record your observations and thoughts--your personal responses to your world--and thus develop ideas for writing. A personal journal is more than just a record of what happens in your life (it's more than just "on Monday I went to the library; on Tuesday I stayed late at work"). A personal journal is a record of your observations, feelings, and reflections on your experience. You may want to write about an incident you observed, a person, a place, an important childhood experience, different reactions to a situation, a current issue, a goal, an ethical problem, or any other subject that has attracted your attention and occupied your thoughts. Consider yourself an investigator and ask why something is the way it is, why people respond in certain ways to a particular situation, what a person's or place's or item's special characteristics are, or how something happened. In other words, think about what you observe and write those thoughts in your journal entries. Think of Andy Rooney's commentaries as a prototype for journal entries; he often starts an essay or a television segment by asking, "Did you ever wonder why...?"

Sample Journal Entry Through this journal entry, the writer has identified a number of ideas that may be fruitful for broader development in an essay, ideas related to how people function in groups, community organization, different responses to adverse situations, and the workings of local governments.

Asking Questions about a Subject

Asking questions is a versatile form of prewriting. You can ask questions to develop a perspective on a subject that you think you want to write about, to narrow a subject that you have already chosen, and to determine whether it's feasible to pursue your chosen subject (especially if you're doing a research paper).

Ask Questions to Develop a Perspective on a Subject Ask the journalist's "who," "what," "when," "where," "why," and "how" in order to get a sense of the subject's scope and of the way in which you may want to approach the subject--the angle that makes sense for you to take when thinking about the subject.

Ask Questions to Narrow a Subject Ask questions about your subject and use the answer to activate another question until you come to a question that is a good stopping place (a focused question that you know you can research, or a focused question that you can answer on your own with examples and details). For example:

Education in what country?the U.S.
What level of U.S. education? education for children
What level of childhood education? Head Start
What do I want to know about it? special programs
Any particular programs? reading readiness
How effective are Head Start
reading readiness programs?

Education for whom?college students
What type of college student?adult, returning student
What problems do adult,
returning students face?

As you develop a "chain" using each answer to generate another question, your subject both narrows in scope and becomes more complex--more appropriate for a college-level essay which requires some depth of thought.

Ask Questions to Determine a Subject's Feasibility Once you have a few subjects that you think might be appropriate for further development into essays or research papers, ask questions to determine each subject's feasibility:

Making a List

Making a list means just what it says, recording ideas that relate directly to a certain subject. Listing is more directed than brainstorming or freewriting; if you decide to make a list as a form of prewriting, then you already have a sense of both your particular focus on the subject and the various aspects related to that focus. You may end up expanding or deleting from your list as you work with it, and that's to be expected. A list is a means of capturing all aspects that you can think of that relate to your focus on the subject. For example:
Focused Subject: ways in which communication can flow in an organization
  1. traditional top-down, with managers providing information and issuing orders to subordinates
  2. bottom-up, which is rarer, in which management has an open-door policy for receiving information and suggestions from employees
  3. cross-departments, in which people on the same level in the organization share information
  4. working teams, which may include members from various levels of the organization brought together by a special project
  5. grapevine, which cuts through all levels and is the most difficult to control

Responding to a Text

Many writers develop ideas from reading. For example, what do you think about a recent magazine article about manufacturers moving out of the U.S. to keep costs down (to pay workers $1.00 a day instead of $18.00 per hour)? What do you think about a newspaper editorial that is for/against quotas to ensure equal employment? What do you think about the idea, offered in a college textbook, that the U.S. is a society dominated by a traditional class structure? Reading can spark lots of ideas for writing, and it's a sure bet that you will be asked to respond to certain assigned college readings with your own ideas.

You can prewrite for an essay by writing your ideas down as you read. Record your thoughts in the margins. Agree or disagree with others' ideas, and jot down your reasons. Jot down questions that occur to you as you read. In essence, carry on your own dialogue with the writer of the text, as though you were talking with him or her, and write that dialogue down so you can retrieve it later on.

Maintaining a Response Journal

A response journal allows you to reflect and record those reflections both as and after you read. It's a particularly good method of responding to a text when that text is complex, and it's a good method of generating ideas for writing. You can ask and try to answer questions in a response journal:

A response journal also gives you the opportunity to record your own thoughts and reactions to the text.

Sample response journal
Responding to a Specific Assignment

Working with Prewriting: Moving from Self to Subject

The point of prewriting is to record an array of thoughts so that you have a pool to draw from for your essay. You may have recorded a mish-mash of information and ideas. I know that I think of my prewriting as a splatter. My prewriting tends to be the stuff that's in my head that I just have to spill out on paper (okay, so I have messy stuff going on in my head). The task then becomes to sort through that stuff, choosing some pieces and discarding others, so that I'm moving from a hodgepodge of information to a focus that I can develop and support for an essay.

In essence, to work with prewriting, you need to move from self to subject. As important as each piece of prewriting is in helping you identify ideas for writing, a prewriting entry alone may not provide enough information to write a whole essay. Prewriting is confined only to your own experiences, observations, and thoughts. In order to develop an essay, you may need to bring in additional experiences, observations, and thoughts--information that reflects not only your specific experiences, but also the general human experience. An essay always uses your own personal insights and thoughts as its basis, but it also broadens out so that those thoughts have relevance for others. (Dave Barry's syndicated newspaper columns provide a good example. I'm thinking of one essay in particular that described his experience with a new toilet, the kind that doesn't use much water and thus doesn't flush very well. He used his own experience as the basis for a broader reflection on problems with modern technology and problems with legislation, things that most adults can relate to in some way.)
So, how do you work with your prewriting to make that shift from self to subject?
  1. Review it to identify the various main ideas that are embedded in the prewriting.
  2. List those ideas.
  3. Write the ideas in thesis form. That is, make an assertion that explains your own insight or idea about the topic, and write that assertion in complete sentence form.
The working thesis, which can be developed from prewriting, is the key to writing an essay.

Sample Student Work from Prewriting to Thesis (from Self to Subject)

Sample #1 - Student Brainstorming, "Insect Life in Japan"

This student found the following types of information within the brainstorming list: The student then could make a point--offer an idea--about one of the types of information: Sample #2 - Student Journal Entry, "Disposing of Radioactive Waste"
The issue of a low-level radioactive waste site being built in this county is a hot one. Recently a group of about 50 residents formed a human chain around representatives of the siting commission who were here to test the soil at three proposed sites for the waste facility. These residents were from every walk of life: housewives, doctors, shop owners, lawyers, teachers, students. All felt strongly that they did not want a waste facility near their homes. They realized that they could be arrested for their actions, yet they were determined to stop the team from testing the soil and they were willing to be arrested for their belief that a waste facility shouldn't be built near people's homes. This well-organized, energetic group of "warriors" got a small boost when the State Police arrived and did not arrest them, but instead escorted the members of the commission off of the land. They considered this a small victory in a much larger battle that may take years to settle. They feel that the State is not playing fair with them about the facts. So little is known about long-time exposure to low-level radiation that even the experts can't seem to agree. And there is a lot of distrust about the motives of those responsible for choosing a site for the facility. All of this uncertainty, plus the fact that no waste facility in the country has been 100% leakproof, has drawn people together as never before. Whether their voices will be heard remains to be seen, but whatever the outcome, hopefully it will be resolved peacefully.
This student found many points that she could make--many ideas that were embedded in the journal entry:
  1. The disposal of radioactive waste is a complex problem that people and their government representatives need to address.
  2. Results of long-term human exposure to low-level radioactive waste are inconclusive.
  3. Some people feel that their land and homes are worth fighting for no matter what.
  4. Adversity can make people unite.
  5. Often, in a crisis situation, the unexpected happens.
  6. People have taken a number of tactics to ensure that radioactive waste is not dumped in their communities.
  7. The proposal to locate a radioactive waste disposal facility in an area can result in a number of reactions including passive resistance, vocal protests, legal action and, in some cases, violent acts.
Sample #3 - Student Question and Answer Chains, "Education"

Education in what country?the U.S.
What level of education?preschool; HeadStart
What particular program?HeadStart's reading readiness program
How effective is this program?

This student did some preliminary research to answer her question in this way:

Education in what country?the U.S.
What level of education? college
What aspect of college ed.? older, returning students
What are the challenges they face?
This student answered her question in this way:

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