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Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches prewriting techniques, with an emphasis on outlines.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. So what are we going to learn today? We'll learn some more about the writing process, the skills and practices that writers use to maximize their potential. The eight recursive steps are brainstorming, prewriting, thesis development, research, drafting, revision, editing, and proofreading.

Today we'll be focusing on the second step-- prewriting-- looking at the ways it's used for organizing thoughts, narrowing the focus of a writing project, and outlining or planning the essay-to-be. So what exactly do we mean by prewriting? Well, there's a lot that has to happen before our experienced writers actually begin the drafting process and much of that falls into the category of prewriting.

Prewriting is the planning and organizing that a writer does before actively beginning to write. And it features several distinct phases or purposes, each of which will have to be tailored to a particular writing project. Prewriting includes the planning out, conducting, and organizing of research that needs to be done before any real writing can begin, as well as the narrowing down of the writing projects focus, making sure it's one that can be fully explained given the time and space constraints on the writer or the writing project, as well as outlining that project making a plan for what to right.

It's important to do this kind of prewriting because the organizing and clarifying of thoughts and plans that it provides gives writers greater control over their projects and usually saves them time in the long run. One of the most important benefits a writer can get from prewriting is a narrow, manageable focus. It's important for the goals of a writing project to be realistic.

And the most common way writers get into trouble with this, at least as far as I've seen, is that they bite off more than they can chew given the limitations put on their time and the number of allowed pages or words involved. It's important to keep a focus narrow because doing so makes it possible to fully explain the ideas and fully answer the questions that drive an essay.

There's nothing worse than a writing project that can't take into account the relevant details involved in its claim, or one that can't support the broad argument it's trying to make. When planning an essay during the prewriting step of the writing process, a writer should consider his or her audience and purpose, then ask whether the focus of the argument is tight enough that he or she'll be able to do it justice in the time and space allowed.

This will help the writer narrow in on a working thesis, one that can be used as the basis of the outline and eventually of the essay itself. And a large part of the reason writers bother with these early stages of the writing process-- brainstorming, organizing research, and outlining-- is to help narrow their focus like this and to keep that focus during the rest of the writing process.

And once you've got your focus manageably narrow, the next thing to do is create an outline for your essay. Outlines vary depending on the writer and the writing project at hand. But put broadly, outlines are the prewritten plans for an essay or other piece of writing that generally include at least a working thesis and the primary ideas to be discussed as well as some form of structural plan or organization.

It's the blueprint, not the house, as a former teacher of mine used to say.

Outlining makes for a stronger piece of writing as well as a faster, more focused writing process. There are multiple kinds of outlines just as there are multiple ways of making them. We'll go over three different forms that an outline can take. The first are traditional outlines, which are highly detailed and include headings and subheadings. If, for example, I'm writing an argument about health insurance and my thesis is that universal health care is better than trusting for-profit companies to make the right decisions about their patients, I might make an outline that plans out the three main headings I'd need to cover. One, problems with existing care. Or I might bring up people who've been denied coverage because they're too expensive, or talk about how companies target mostly the young, healthy people on whom they'll make the most money.

And two, ways that a nonprofit system might help America in which I'd probably use information about other countries like France or Canada that already use them and how much better their health care system seem to be for the people who actually need them. And three, reasons that the system hasn't caught on in America-- right sight business opposition and a general fear of government control over something so important and so vital.

Another form of outline, one a little less rigid and detail oriented, might work something like this. I'd probably just write my thesis out stating that universal health care should be implemented in America, then quickly note down any reasons and presumed evidence. Again, the problems I see in for-profit companies working in the industry, how much better other countries seem to be at taking care of themselves, and reasons why Americans don't seem to want it too much.

And a third, perhaps less common form of outlining, is called storyboarding in which I draw a series of panels or squares with notes and usually images detailing my writing plan. I'm a terrible artist, but here I'd also probably break up my outline into three pieces or panels. The first about companies, the second about alternatives, and a third about why we don't Institute universal health care.

As you can probably tell, each of these three methods of outlining would contain more or less the same information and that each would probably be of similar use to me later on. Here, as in many other aspects of the writing process, it all comes down to personal preference. What did we learn today? We learned about the second step in the writing process-- prewriting-- looking at the two primary benefits its techniques can give writers. Narrowing a focus down into something manageable within the constraints of the writing projects rhetorical situation and outlining or creating a plan for later drafts. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

The pre-written plan for an essay or other piece of writing and generally includes at least a working thesis, the primary ideas to be discussed, and structural organization.


Planning and organization that a writer does before actively beginning to write.