The Importance of Good Pre-Writing

By Mark Springer, WAC Fellow

Ever notice how people never seem to have time to do something right the first time, but are often forced to make time to go back and do it right the second time?  I have often had students ask me what they should do when they have problems with focus, writing essays that seem to ramble from topic to topic.  Very often, when this comes up, it is because the writer has been in too much of a hurry to get her paper finished.  Here's how it works: 

Sara's First Rush Effort

Sara Castillo has got to write a paper that's due on Friday in English 1A.  She's going to have to work 20 hours this week, spend ten hours babysitting her younger sister, and also needs to spend some time just relaxing and being with friends.  She just doesn't seem to have time to go through all of the formal steps of writing and still get the paper done in time; so she decides to skip the pre-writing work on the paper and just start writing her first draft.  She already knows something about what she wants to say anyway.

So Sara just starts writing.  She has to pick a position on violence in the media and support her position with quotes from the reading.   That should be easy.  She scans through the essays she had been assigned for class discussion, looking at all the different passages she underlined, and finds three or four parts that support her opinion.  Then she starts writing. 

Soon, Sara runs into a small snag.  There aren't any strong connections between the three different quotes she chose, so her thesis needs to be very broad in order to include them all:  She resolves this by making her thesis statement, "Violence in the media is very harmful because it encourages children to behave violently.  That looks okay.  Sara decides to write a paragraph to develop each of her three quotes from the reading, and include some of her own ideas and experiences as well. 

Sara's Problem

When she's done, her paper doesn't seem to have a logical flow.  Because her thesis statement is so broad, just about anything she thinks about children, media, and violence seems relevant.  None of her main paragraphs have a single clear purpose because it took some stretching of ideas to get her personal experiences to connect in some way to the material in her citations.  Also, since there are so many important things to say about each main idea, she never gets beyond the general statements into any real development of her ideas.  This causes her paragraphs to ramble a lot.  Rather than looking like a "well-wrought urn," Sara's paper looks more like something patched together with masking tape out of paper from rough essay drafts, newspapers, magazines, and old pizza boxes.  It just doesn't fit together, and the whole thing looks like it's ready to fall apart.

Some of us are able to write that way, and are able to revise and hone such a paper into something really tight and coherent.  But it doesn't work for Sara.  She's now backed into a corner and can't figure out how to tighten and focus the chaos in front of her.  For Sara, it just didn't work for her to try to save time by skipping over the first steps of the writing process.  Like a house with no foundation, Sara's paper had nothing strong and solid to rest on.  Because Sara just picked the ideas that she found first while scanning through her notes, she has no unifying theme that can connect them well.  As a result, she wound up wasting more time afterwards, trying to make a random group of ideas connect in some way.  Let's go back to the beginning and see what would have happened if she had invested a little more time at the front end to make things easier later on:

Trying Another Approach to Writing in a Hurry

This time, Sara's going to do a thorough job of prewriting her paper because she trusts that if she does, she'll have much stronger foundation for a paper that nearly writes itself at the end; this will save her time that she'll be able to spend with her friends relaxing—not worrying about whether she'll be able to get a C on her essay. 

The first thing Sara is going to do is make sure that her reading materials are well-annotated so that she can quickly and easily find anything she might want to pull out of the readings at any stage of her work.

Once Sara has gathered together everything that she expects she might possibly need from the readings and, if applicable, from her research, She'll want to glance over her annotations and summaries to make sure that the key ideas from her reading are fresh in her mind.  Now she's ready to start pre-writing.  Sara might do a clustering, a pro-con list, a brain-storm, or a forced free-write to get as many ideas as she can down on paper.  This may include ideas that she got from her reading or research, from her own experience, from the news or from books or magazines that she has read, or even from stories that she has heard from friends or relatives.  Any information that might have some bearing on the essay goes down on paper. 

Two things are critical about the prewriting process:  First, Sara is very careful not to censor her ideas no matter how ridiculous they may seem as she is writing them down.  There will be plenty of time for weeding things out later.  Right now, her concern is to put down everything she can think of.  The second thing is that Sara wants to really take her time at this.  She's not going to stop brainstorming the first time her mind goes blank, or even the tenth time.  She probably won't get much down at all if she gives up too soon.  But our brains are amazing organs, and while they contain incredible amounts of information, they don't always give us what we're looking for right away; so Sara has to be patient.  She is willing to stare at her paper for a good long while if she needs to.  She's willing to let it feel really frustrating that nothing's coming to mind.  Very often, something wonderful will pop up just when she didn't know how she was going to keep it up a minute longer. 

Sara often likes to set a cooking timer for twenty minutes or so, and she'll just keep concentrating on that paper until the timer goes off.  That makes it easier to stay focused in spite of wondering if she's been brainstorming long enough yet.  If she doesn't have to stop to check the time, she can be more present and open to ideas that might come.  The forced-free write can also be a great tool for keeping going when it gets really hard because it requires you to keep writing on the paper, even if all you can think of to write is, "I don't know what to write, this is really stupid, god I feel really stupid….."  But if you just keep writing, suddenly something else comes to mind, and it could be the best idea you've thought of yet.  That feel of the pen in your hand and the act of keeping it moving can make it a little easier to keep waiting for ideas to come, and it can also help some ideas come to the surface a little more promptly.  Sara may go ahead and try a forced free-write if she thinks she needs to.

The Value of Up-Front Time Investment

Now all of this extra time and effort is going to really pay off because by the time Sara has done careful, thorough annotations of her source texts and done an exhaustive, productive pre-writing, she gets a large pile of ideas to work with.  That may seem excessive if she only needs enough ideas to support her thesis-but actually, it isn't.  A big pile of ideas is much better than the exact number of ideas you need.  If you just grab the first few ideas that come to mind, you're stuck with what you get, and you have to make them work, no matter how well or how poorly they fit together.  You've decided that you don't have time to go back and try better ones, and if you're like Sara and I used to be, you'll just waste more and more time trying to force these random ideas to work together rather than go back for a better-matched set.  If, on the other hand, you gather up a nice healthy pile of ideas, you can sift through it and look for the fun, interesting, compelling ideas-the ones that will make it fun to write your paper-and ones that fit together nicely and can be described in a clear, specific, direct, focused thesis statement.  Do you remember that really dopey idea that Sara was going to throw out while she was pre-writing?  Actually, when she puts it next to an idea over here, it may become a really powerful transition to another idea over there.  There are things that we see when we look at ideas in groups or combinations that are simply not apparent when we see the ideas individually.  It's a good thing she wasn't too hasty about throwing things out!  Since Sara gathered together a large selection of ideas, not only was she able to choose the best from a larger variety, but she was actually able to have a much broader set of options as to how to combine ideas together in different ways.  By giving herself so many more choices and so much more flexibility, Sara was able to pick out a set of main ideas for her paper that will be much easier to work with and much easier to focus tightly in her paper. 


By doing a thorough pre-writing, you can give yourself a broader selection of ideas to choose from as the focus of your paper.  By custom-selecting ideas for your paper that fit together, that are easier to develop based on your readings and research, and that you are interested in writing about, you can make your essay writing task easier and more enjoyable.  You can spend less time sweating over how to connect distantly related ideas into a focused train of reasoning, and more time learning about ideas that interest you and getting them down on paper where you can share them with your professors and classmates.  And, you'll have plenty of time left over to enjoy relaxing with your friends and looking forward to getting that B or A grade when your paper comes back.