The Prewriting Stage of the Writing Process

Ideas and Strategies to Help With Prewriting

pen on blank paper
Prewriting is the first stage of the writing process. Andrew Unangst/Getty Images

The writing process consists of different stages: prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing. In many ways, prewriting is the most important of these steps. Prewriting is the "generating ideas" part of the writing process when the student works to determine the topic and the position or point-of-view for a target audience. Pre-writing should be offered with the time necessary for a student to create a plan or develop an outline to organize materials for the final product.

The pre-writing stage could also be dubbed the "talking stage" of writing. Researchers have determined that talking plays an important role in literacy. Andrew Wilkinson (1965) coined the phrase oracy, defining it as "the ability to express oneself coherently and to communicate freely with others by word of mouth." Wilkinson explained how oracy leads to increased skill in reading and writing. In other words, talking about a topic will improve the writing. This connection between talk and writing is best expressed by the author James Britton (1970) who stated: "talk is the sea upon which all else floats.”

Prewriting Methods

There are a number of ways that students can tackle the prewriting stage of the writing process. Following are a few of the most common methods and strategies that students can use. 

  • Brainstorming - Brainstorming is the process of coming up with as many ideas as possible about a topic without being worried about the feasibility or whether an idea is realistic or not. A list format is often easiest to organize. This can be done individually and then shared with the class or done as a group. Access to this list during the writing process can help students make connections they may want to use later in their writing.
  • Freewriting - The free write strategy is when your students write whatever comes into their mind about the topic at hand for a specific amount of time, like 10 or 15 minutes. In a free write, students should not worry about grammar, punctuation, or spelling. Instead, they should try and come up with as many ideas as they possibly can to help them when they get to the writing process. 
  • Mind Maps - Concept maps or mind-mapping are great strategies to use during the pre-writing stage. Both are visual ways to outline information. There are many varieties of mind maps that can be quite useful as students work in the prewriting stage. Webbing is a great tool that has students write a word in the middle of a sheet of paper. Related words or phrases are then connected by lines to this original word in the center. They build on the idea so that, in the end, the student has a wealth of ideas that are connected to this central idea. For example, if the topic for a paper were the role of the US President, the student would write this in the center of the paper. Then as they thought of each role that the president fulfills, they could write this down in a circle connected by a line to this original idea. From these terms, the student could then add supporting details. In the end, they would have a nice roadmap for an essay on this topic. 
  • Drawing/Doodling - Some students respond well to the idea of being able to combine words with drawings as they think about what they want to write in the prewriting stage. This can open up creative lines of thought. 
  • Asking Questions - Students often come up with more creative ideas through the use of questioning. For example, if the student has to write about Heathcliff's role in Wuthering Heights, they might begin by asking themselves some questions about him and the causes of his hatred. They might ask how a 'normal' person might react to better understand the depths of Heathcliff's malevolence. The point is that these questions can help the student uncover a deeper understanding of the topic before they begin writing the essay.
  • Outlining - Students can employ traditional outlines to help them organize their thoughts in a logical manner. The student would start with the overall topic and then list out their ideas with supporting details. It is helpful to point out to students that the more detailed their outline is from the beginning, the easier it will be for them write their paper. 

    Teachers should recognize that prewriting that begins in a "sea of talk" will engage students. Many students will find that combining a couple of these strategies may work well to provide them with a great basis for their final product. They may find that if they ask questions as they brainstorm, free write, mind-map, or doodle, they will organize their ideas for the topic. In short, the time put in up front in the pre-writing stage will make the writing stage much easier.