Prewriting describes all of the thinking and planning that precedes the actual writing of a paper.
Much careful thought needs to be given to the assignment in general at the beginning of prewriting before focusing on your topic.
- First, understand the writing assignment and its limits. Consider the assignment’s length. Always know the expected length of a writing assignment. A two-page paper has a much narrower topic than a ten-page paper would have. If there is no page limit, consider the nature of the assignment to suggest its length. A summary of a chapter will be much shorter than the original chapter. An analysis of a poem may likely be longer than the poem itself.
- Second, establish the assignment’s purpose. It is important to know the reasons you are writing or the purposes you are trying to accomplish with the writing.
- Expressive writing conveys personal feelings or impressions to the audience.
- Informative writing enlightens the audience about something.
- Persuasive writing attempts to convince the audience to think or act in a certain way.
Other more specific purposes can include entertaining, analyzing, hypothesizing, assessing, summarizing, questioning, reporting, recommending, suggesting, evaluating, describing, recounting, requesting, and instructing.
- Next, determine the assignment’s audience. You must determine to whom you are writing. An audience can be an individual or a group. An audience can be general or specialized. Once you define your audience, you must determine how much the audience already knows about the subject to know how much or little background information should be included. You should also determine how best to approach your audience in terms of language, rhetorical strategies, purposes for reading, and background knowledge.
- Then devise the assignment’s occasion. The occasion for which you are writing will determine the formality and scope of a writing project. An in-class writing assignment will differ from an out-of-class formal assignment. A memo for fellow office workers will differ from a report written for the company’s president. A letter to an aunt will differ from a letter written to a bank to request a personal loan.
- Finally, assess your own previous knowledge of the subject. Before writing, you need to determine what you already know about a subject, what you need to find out about the subject, and what you think about the subject. Personal essays draw upon your own experiences and observations; research essays require you to gain new knowledge through research.
Reading plays a vital role in all the stages of the writing process, but it first figures in the development of ideas and topics. Different kinds of documents can help you choose a topic and develop that topic. For example, a magazine advertising the latest research on the threat of global warming may catch your eye in the supermarket. This cover may interest you, and you may consider global warming as a topic, or maybe a novel’s courtroom drama sparks your curiosity of a particular lawsuit or legal controversy. After you choose a topic, critical reading is essential to the development of a topic. While reading almost any document, you evaluate the author’s point of view by thinking about his main idea and his support. When you judge the author’s argument, you discover more about the author’s opinion as well as your own. If these steps already seem daunting, remember that even the best writers need to use prewriting strategies to generate ideas.
The steps in the writing process may seem time consuming at first, but following these steps will save you time in the future. The more you plan in the beginning by reading and using prewriting strategies, the less time you may spend writing and editing later because your ideas will develop more swiftly. Prewriting strategies depend on your critical reading skills. Reading prewriting exercises (and outlines and drafts later in the writing process) will further develop your topic and ideas. As you continue to follow the writing process, you will see how to use critical reading skills to assess your own prewriting exercises.
Choosing a viable general topic for an assignment is an essential step. Sometimes your instructor will give you an idea to begin an assignment, and other times your instructor will ask you to come up with a topic on your own. A captivating topic covers what an assignment will be about and fits the assignment’s purpose and its audience. There are various methods you may use to discover an appropriate topic for your writing.
Once a general topic has been assigned to or chosen by you, then you must decide on the scope of the topic. Broad topics always need to be narrowed down to topics that are more specific. Then you need to determine what you are going to say about a subject. One way to help narrow a general subject down to a narrower topic is by probing, or asking a reporter's questions.
- Probing is asking a series of questions about the topic. Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? As you choose your topic, answering these questions can help you revisit the ideas you already have and generate new ways to think about your topic. You may also discover aspects of the topic that are unfamiliar to you and that you would like to learn more about. All these idea-gathering techniques will help you plan for future work on your assignment.
For example, if you were writing about tattoos, then you might ask yourself the following questions: Who do you know that has tattoos or who are some celebrities with memorable tattoos? What kinds of tattoos do people usually get–what symbols and what words? Where do people place tattoos on their bodies or where do people go to get tattoos–tattoo parlors? When do people get tattoos–is it after some memorable event or life stage? Why do people get tattoos? Finally, how do people get tattoos–what is the actual process?
Developing a Topic
The following checklist can help you decide if your narrowed topic is a possible topic for your assignment:
- Why am I interested in this topic?
- Would my audience be interested and why?
- Do I have prior knowledge or experience with this topic? If so, would I be comfortable exploring this topic and sharing my experiences?
- Why do I want to learn more about this topic?
- Is this topic specific? What specifics or details about this topic stand out to me?
- Does it fit the purpose of the assignment, and will it meet the required length of the assignment?
Contributors and Attributions
Adapted from Let's Get Writing (Browning, DeVries, Boylan, Kurtz and Burton). Sourced from LibreTexts, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA