Have you ever sat at your computer, staring at a blank screen, totally unsure of what to write? That kind of experience can be so frustrating. Luckily, there are some tricks you can practice to help you prepare to write.
Writing isn’t a product; it’s a process that has many different stages, steps, and methods. To produce a finished, polished, beautiful piece of writing, you don’t just sit down and write it. You go through many different steps and engage in a whole host of activities in order to turn an idea into a piece of text.
One of the most essential steps you can take is prewriting, which is part of the early development of a piece of writing. All writers engage in some form of prewriting, so to become a great writer, you need to understand the kinds of prewriting activities that you can try out before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
Prewriting is an activity or set of activities that you might do as a writer to generate ideas for your paper. The reason writers engage in prewriting is to get a whole lot of ideas down on paper really quickly. This helps relieve the anxiety that might come along with a writing project, or might help end writer’s block, if you have it.
The whole goal of this prewriting is to encourage thinking, which means it’s also a time to remain open to all sorts of ideas, opinions, and possible directions for your writing project.
There are a few different ways you might facilitate prewriting. You might think over your topic while walking the dog, talk about it with your friends, or discuss your ideas with a professor or a peer.
But there are also systematic strategies that you can use to prewrite. Some, such as free writing, listing, and clustering, are almost like games you play with yourself. Others, such as outlining, may be more like a way of organizing thoughts to prepare for writing.
An outline is a prewritten plan for an essay or other piece of writing, which generally includes ideas to be discussed and a structural organization. To get the ideas that you’ll put in an outline, you might want to try some of these fun prewriting strategies first.
Start by thinking about listing as one prewriting strategy. When you list, you just write things down as they come. You might think of a topic, set a timer for a few minutes, and then spend those minutes listing every word, phrase, image, or concept that comes to mind until the timer rings.
There aren’t really any rules for listing. If a word or concept comes to your mind that seems silly, write it down anyway. Don’t censor anything. If the thought doesn’t seem relevant to your topic, still write it down. That connection could be useful later.
You’ll sort through those thoughts once you’re at a point in the writing process where you’re starting to organize your thoughts into a paper outline.
Your paper topic is human and animal relationships. The first thing you might think of is your own pet, if you have one. Once you write that down, you might start thinking about the difference between pets and other kinds of animals.
Some of these animals are working animals and some are just pets; you might then wonder what categories you could put animals in. What kind of work do animals do for humans? You could go on, but as you can see below, you’d already have a list forming of all the different thoughts that came up as you sat and considered human-animal relations.
Note that this list is not necessarily pointing out the connections between ideas; it’s just free form.
One benefit of listing as a prewriting tool is that you can potentially transform these ideas into outlines that will help you organize your essay later in the process.
The disadvantage of listing is that it might not help you connect your thoughts or develop those networks of ideas. If you want to generate ideas like you did in listing, while also being more attentive to the connections between your ideas, you might want to try clustering.
Clustering is a great tool for people who like to learn visually because it represents the paper that you’ll eventually write in a visual fashion, and helps you make connections between ideas to explore the whole network of thoughts that can be generated by any topic.
But again, you might also notice that this isn’t as easy to turn into an outline as that linear list was.
When you’re listing and clustering, you’re focusing on short bursts of ideas—single words or phrases. In contrast, when you free-write, you might use full sentences and develop your ideas using a more narrative approach, which is a great way to get started on the writing process.
Free-writing works just like it sounds. You spend several minutes writing without pause about anything that relates to your topic, and you don’t just have to focus on ideas here. You can write about the feelings that this topic brings up in you, about any concerns you might have regarding the topic, or really about anything else that’s relevant to the whole writing process.
Your topic focuses on the relationship between humans and animals. You may start off writing about why you like this topic, and that leads you to thinking about the topic itself in more detail.
Because you are exploring what you personally find interesting about human-animal relations, you get the chance to home in on a particular focus. Then when you consider the variety of opinions that are possible about this focus, you can discover a connection that might not have originally occurred to you.
This is why free writing is so useful—it helps writers explore any aspect of the topic that comes to them.
Since you are simply exploring, a lot of the writing may not be used directly in an outline or in your paper, but you may stumble on an important connection that otherwise may not have come to you!
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Martina Shabram.