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Effective Prewriting: Instructions and Examples

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  • 0:01 Effective Prewriting
  • 0:48 Getting Started
  • 2:59 Brainstorming
  • 5:46 Mapping
  • 7:16 Freewriting
  • 8:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a law degree.

You should learn prewriting techniques, such as brainstorming, mapping, and freewriting, to produce well-planned, focused essays. This lesson explains the basics for how to conduct effective prewriting.

Effective Prewriting

There are certain things in life that we all know that we should do, but that many of us just don't do - like flossing, drinking eight glasses of water a day, or vacuuming. If we just took the time to do those things, though, we'd probably be able to see the benefits pretty easily.

Prewriting is a bit like that. Prewriting is the process of generating ideas for a writing assignment. You may have had an English teacher who insisted that you do prewriting for each writing assignment you've done. You might have thought that it was a waste of time - a step that you didn't really need to take.

However, there are real benefits to prewriting. A well-planned essay will pretty much always be better than one that the writer just sat down to write without thinking about it beforehand. Doing some planning is a surefire way to improve your writing abilities and your scores on writing tests.

Getting Started

The first step to prewriting is figuring out what you're going to write about.

With a writing assignment, you might be given a writing prompt, which is a specific question to which you must respond or a specific topic that you must address. Alternatively, you might be given more of an open-ended assignment for which you can choose your topic.

With most timed writing exams, and even with some term papers, you'll be given a writing prompt to which you'll have to respond. First, before you even start thinking about specific prewriting strategies, take a moment or two to read and reread the prompt. Make sure that you have a good understanding of what you're being asked. You don't want to dive into a timed writing exam only to realize halfway through that you haven't focused on what's been asked but rather something vaguely related to it.

Let's consider a sample essay exam writing prompt:

Some states have made certain types of cell phone use illegal for drivers while they are operating motor vehicles. Some of these bans apply only to texting, and some bans apply to all handheld cell phone use. Some people argue that all cell phone use by drivers is dangerous and that all use by drivers should therefore be banned. Should your state completely ban all cell phone use for drivers while they are operating motor vehicles? Write a persuasive essay in which you present your argument. Be sure to provide a clear thesis and examples in your essay.

Again, the very first thing you must do in your prewriting process is: carefully read and interpret the writing prompt. If you read the prompt only once, you may remember that bans of texting while driving are mentioned. You might then just start writing about whether you think that your state should or should not ban texting for drivers while they are behind the wheel.

This would be a misinterpretation of the prompt, however.

Take another look at what the prompt actually tells us. Specifically, the key question is, 'Should your state completely ban all cell phone use for drivers while they are operating motor vehicles?'

Remember that there might be a lot of information in a writing prompt; your job is to zero in on the key question to which you're being asked to respond. It's worth taking an extra minute or two to make sure you've got the question figured out before you waste valuable time writing about the wrong thing.

Brainstorming

Once you've gotten your head around the writing prompt and what's being asked, you'll need to determine how to actually go about prewriting for your essay. There are a lot of different methods, but we'll focus on three specific types.

The first is brainstorming, which involves taking a few minutes to write down every phrase or idea that you can come up with that might be relevant for your essay. An easy way to do this is to grab a sheet of paper and make a list of each point that comes to mind.

Don't worry about spelling or editing at this point. Just get the ideas out of your head and onto the paper.

For our sample writing prompt, you wouldn't even need to decide which side you support before you start brainstorming. You might divide up your paper and make two separate lists, one supporting a ban and one opposing it.

Start jotting down basic ideas as they come to you. For example, in your PRO column, which is in support of a ban of all cell phone use for drivers, you might write:

  • Would cut down on distracted driving
  • Would reduce accidents, save lives
  • Making calls can be just as distracting as texting
  • Would send a message that no distractions are acceptable while driving

In your CON column, you'd write down ideas that would oppose a law banning all cell phone use by drivers. In that column, you might write:

  • Talking on a cell phone is no more distracting than using the car radio
  • Drivers should be allowed to take or make emergency calls
  • Hands-free cell phone use is safe and shouldn't be banned
  • Lawmakers should focus on real distractions, like texting
  • I've never had a car accident while using my cell phone

Note that your brainstorming process need not involve full sentences. And don't worry about organization at this point; that will come later, when you outline your major points. Don't be concerned about whether you've come up with every possible idea, or even if all of your ideas are good ones. Your goal during brainstorming is simply to get many relevant ideas out of your head and onto the paper. If you're not sure which side of a controversial issue you'd like to argue at first, brainstorming can help you decide; you can simply see which side you've generated more good points for.

Note that if you aren't given a specific writing prompt, brainstorming can be very useful as you work to come up with a topic that you'd like to write about. If your instructor, for example, assigns you a persuasive essay, but tells you that you can choose your own topic, you can employ brainstorming to think up topics that might interest you. You might take a few minutes and list ideas as they come to you. For example, you might come up with the following ideas:

  • Should college athletes be paid?
  • Should birth control be given to public high school students?
  • Should volunteer work be a requirement for high school graduation?
  • Should large, high-calorie sodas be banned at restaurants?

Once you have a few ideas in front of you, you'll be in a good position to choose which one would be best by the process of elimination. You might decide, for example, that you wouldn't be able to adequately research a certain topic, that another topic might be too broad, or that a topic just isn't interesting to you.

Mapping

A second major type of prewriting is mapping or webbing. This method is a lot like brainstorming, but instead of simply listing your ideas, mapping - or webbing, as it's also called - involves sketching out your ideas in a way that shows how those ideas relate to each other. Mapping lets you visually plot out how one point would lead you logically to another point.

A student who uses mapping as a prewriting technique would typically start by writing his or her main idea in the very center of the page. For example, you might write, 'Reasons to ban all cell phone use for drivers' in the center of your page, and draw a circle around it. You would then brainstorm specific ideas, but you would connect those ideas to each other visually on the page. So, you might write, 'Reduce distractions,' circle it, and draw a line between that and your central point. From this second point, you might then write, 'Prevent accidents, save lives,' and connect those ideas. That point might connect further to 'Inconvenience worth the added safety.'

You may then decide to come up with an additional, separate point that doesn't build on the points we've just sketched out. To do this, you'd continue to web out your map in a separate direction. Your new point might be, 'Making calls is as dangerous as texting.' You might connect that point to the new point, 'Make it clear to drivers that all cell phone use is dangerous and should be avoided.'

You might map out in a third direction some additional points discussing statistics or several other directions from the main circle. If you're a visual learner, or someone who really has to see how things relate to one another, mapping might be a good technique for you.

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