9 – The Writing Process

Prewriting

Rebecca Weaver; Lynne Bost; Michelle Kassorla; Karen McKinney-Holley; Kathryn Crowther; Lauren Curtright; Nancy Gilbert; Barbara Hall; Tracienne Ravita; Kirk Swenson; Kalani Pattison; James Francis, Jr.; Claire Carly-Miles; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt

Loosely defined, prewriting includes all the strategies employed before creating a first draft. While many more strategies exist, the following sections detail common prewriting approaches such as the following:

  • Considering the rhetorical situation
  • Reading
  • Brainstorming (freewriting, asking questions)
  • Narrowing focus (listing, idea mapping/clustering)

Using these strategies can help a writer overcome the fear of a blank page and begin writing confidently. In several subsequent sections of this chapter, you will follow a writer named Mariah as she plans, explores, and develops a variety of types of documents. As you apply your understanding of the writing process to your own documents, remember the rhetorical situation, particularly the audience and the purpose of your writing.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

It is often best to determine a before thinking about the other elements of a when writing an essay or other academic assignment. In technical and professional writing, however, the topic is often either pre-determined or will be determined by the of the document. To get started, consider the questions below. (For a more in-depth exploration, see Chapter 2: The Rhetorical Situation.)

What are you trying to accomplish with the document? (Purpose)
Are you trying to convey information (inform), convince someone to hire you (persuade), or explain how to accomplish a task (instruct)?

With whom are you trying to communicate in the document? (Audience)
This question is connected to your document’s purpose: Who are you trying to convince, inform, or teach? How does the specific audience shape your writing strategies?

What else is happening, and what other factors in the situation make now the best time to communicate this information? (Context)
Is this document in response to a timely, specific event and/or the result of information you learned? Is there a “gap” that needs to be addressed?

Based on the purpose, audience, and context of your document, what is the most appropriate form for the document? (Genre)
Each genre and form comes with its own expectations and conventions. Predetermining these standards can save you noticeable effort in deciding on a document’s organization, content, tone, and design.

Reading

Reading refers to consuming any kind of text, whether that be viewing an article, listening to a podcast, or watching a YouTube video. Reading impacts all the stages of the writing process. First, it plays an integral role in the development of ideas and content. Different kinds of documents can help you figure out what context applies to the topic and content. For example, a magazine cover advertising the latest research on the threat of climate change may prompt you to consider the environmental impact of the actions of an organization or company, or a television courtroom drama may spark questions and considerations about legal details or implications of a project you are working on.

Critical reading is essential to the development of a topic when you know your purpose and have an idea of your content. While reading almost any document, you evaluate the author’s argument by thinking about their main idea and supporting content. When you critique the author’s claim, you discover more about not only their opinion but also your own. This stage might be considered preliminary research: a quick investigation to see what information already exists and is easily accessible. You might find, for instance, that someone related to your potential audience is already working on the issue. Alternatively, when writing a cover letter for a job application, you may find some information about the company that makes it seem like a particularly good or bad fit for you.

Brainstorming

refers to prewriting techniques used to

  • Generate topic ideas,
  • Transform abstract thoughts about a topic into more concrete ideas on paper (or digitally on a computer screen), and
  • Organize generated ideas to discover a focus.

Although brainstorming techniques can be helpful in all stages of the writing process, you will have to find the techniques that are most effective for your writing needs. When initially deciding on a topic, the following general brainstorming strategies can be used: freewriting, asking questions, listing, and clustering/idea mapping.

Freewriting

is an exercise in which you write or type freely about any topic for a set amount of time (usually five to seven minutes). During the time limit, you may jot down any thoughts that come to mind. Try not to worry about grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Instead, write or type as quickly as you can without stopping. If you get stuck, just copy the same word or phrase over and over again until you come up with a new thought.

Writing sometimes comes more easily when you either have a personal connection with the topic you have chosen or your project has real-world impact. To generate ideas in your freewriting, you may also think about readings that you have enjoyed or experiences and observations that have challenged your thinking. Doing this may lead your thoughts in interesting directions.

Quickly recording your thoughts on paper or on screen will help you discover what you have to say about a topic. When writing quickly, try not to doubt or question your ideas. Allow yourself to write freely and unselfconsciously. Once you start writing with few limitations, you may find you have more to say than you first realized. Your flow of thoughts can lead you to discover even more ideas and details about the topic. Freewriting may even lead you to discover another topic that excites you even more.

Freewriting looks different for every author, so it can be helpful to see what the process might look like. In the example below, Mariah, who recently received her bachelor’s degree, is getting ready to apply for a position as a social media coordinator at a small company and wants to think of everything relevant to include or emphasize in her cover letter and application materials. Mariah starts by thinking about her experiences as a communications major. She uses freewriting to help her generate more concrete ideas from her own experience.

Freewriting Example

Last semester my favorite class was about mass media. We got to study radio and television. People say we watch too much television, and even though I try not to, I end up watching a few reality shows just to relax. Everyone has to relax! It’s too hard to relax when something like the news (my husband watches all the time) is on because it’s too scary now. Too much bad news, not enough good news. News. Newspapers I don’t read as much anymore. I can get the headlines on my homepage when I check my email. Email could be considered mass media too these days. I used to go to the video store a few times a week before I started school, but now the only way I know what movies are current is to listen for the Oscar nominations. We have cable but we can’t afford movie channels, so I sometimes look at older movies late at night. UGH. A few of them get played again and again until you’re sick of them. My husband thinks I’m weird, but sometimes there are old black-and-whites on from the 1930s and ’40s. I could never live my life in black-and-white. I like the home decorating shows and love how people use color on their walls. Makes rooms look so bright. When we buy a home, if we ever can, I’ll use lots of color. Some of those shows even show you how to do major renovations by yourself. Knock down walls and everything. Not for me—or my husband. I’m handier than he is. I wonder if they could make a reality show about us?

When she completes her freewriting, Mariah is able to pick out various points she could emphasize in her application materials: the fact that she has studied mass media, her knowledge of pop culture (the reality shows she watches and the point that she listens to Oscar nominations), the idea that email and social media can be important sources of news, her appreciation for black-and-white classics, and her preference for color in design.

Asking Questions

Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

In everyday situations, you pose these kinds of questions to get more information. Who will be my partner for the project? What day is the graduation ceremony? When is the next meeting? Where is the conference located? Why is my car making that odd noise? When faced with a writing assignment, you might ask yourself, “How do I begin?”

These questions are sometimes called the (5 Ws and 1 H) questions, after their initial letters. Reporters and journalists use these questions to gather information, and you can, too, in your own writing. Asking these questions will also help with the writing process. As you work on developing your content, 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 and that you would like to learn more about. All these idea-gathering techniques will help you plan for future work on your assignment.

Let’s say Mariah’s supervisor asks her to investigate how the company could establish the presence of a certain product in the media. First, Mariah has to figure out how to define “media” and how to narrow down the topic to something manageable. She decides to explore that topic by asking herself questions about it. Her purpose is to refine “media” into a topic she feels comfortable investigating. In order to see how asking questions can help you refine a topic, examine Table 9.1 that Mariah created to record her questions and answers. She asked, “Who? What? Where? When? Why? And how?” to reflect on her knowledge about mass media.

Table 9.1. Example of "Asking Questions."

Question Example Text
Who? I use media. Students, teachers, parents, employers, and employees—almost everyone uses media.
What? Media can be a lot of things—television, radio, email (I think), newspapers, magazines, books.
Where? Media is almost everywhere now. It’s at home, at work, in cars, and even on cell phones.
When? Media has been around for a long time, but it seems a lot more important now.
Why? Hmm. This is a good question. I don’t know why there is mass media. Maybe we have it because we have the technology now. Or people live far away from their families and have to stay in touch.
How? Well, media is possible because of technological inventions, but I don’t know how they all work.

Narrowing the Focus

“Narrowing the focus” means breaking up the topic into subtopics, or more specific points. Generating several subtopics will help you eventually select the ones that best fit the assignment and appeal to you and your audience.

After considering her boss’ instructions, Mariah realizes her general investigation topic, mass media, is too broad to address effectively. The prewriting techniques of brainstorming by freewriting and asking questions help Mariah generate information and angles concerning a topic, but the following prewriting strategies can help her (and you) narrow the focus of a topic:

  • Listing
  • Idea Mapping/Clustering

Listing

is a prewriting technique where the writer creates (usually vertical) a list or lists with one word, phrase, sentence, or idea per line. Start with a blank sheet of paper (or a blank word-processing document) and write or type the general topic across the top. Underneath your topic, make a list of more specific ideas. Think of your general topic as a broad category and the list of items as things that fit in that category. You will often find that one item can lead to the next, creating a flow of ideas that can help you narrow your focus to a more specific topic. Table 9.2 shows Mariah’s prewriting list for her topic.

Table 9.2. Example prewriting for “Media.”

Media
Magazines Internet Cell Phones
Newspapers Smart Phones
Broadcasting Text Messages
Radio/Television/Film Tiny Cameras
DVD GPS
Gaming/Video Games Social Media
Twitch YouTube

From this list, Mariah could narrow the focus of her investigation to a particular technology under the broad category of “media.” A successful investigation into how to promote the product in media (as Mariah’s supervisor requested) would most likely start with a specific subsection of media, as not all areas work the same or reach the same audiences.

Idea Mapping/Clustering

, sometimes called clustering or webbing, allows you to visualize ideas on paper or a screen using circles, lines, and arrows. This technique is also known as clustering because ideas are broken down and clustered, or grouped, together. Many writers like this method because the shapes show how the ideas relate or connect, and writers can find a focused topic from the connections mapped. By using idea mapping, you might discover interesting connections between topics that you had not considered before.

To create an idea map, follow these steps:

  1. Start by writing your general topic in a circle in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Moving out from the main circle, write down in blank areas on the page as many concepts and terms/ideas as you can think of that are related to your general topic. Jot down your ideas quickly—do not overthink your responses. Try to fill the page. This can also be accomplished using digital art programs like Painter and Photoshop, but previous knowledge of the software is recommended.
  2. Once you’ve filled the page, circle or box the concepts and terms that are relevant to your topic. Use lines or arrows to categorize and connect closely-related ideas. Add and cluster as many ideas as possible.

To continue narrowing her topic, Mariah tried idea mapping as shown in Figure 9.1[1] below.

This image shows an example of an idea map. The main idea, in this case "Mass Media," appears in a circle in the center. From that main idea the student has drawn lines to other circles that represent subtopics, and then from each subtopic more lines point to more circles with more specific examples. For instance, in this idea map, the student moves from "Mass Media" to "TV" and "Radio" as first-level subtopics. "Radio," for example, then leads to "Music," "Downloads vs CDs" and "Piracy," thus leading the student to a much more specific topic. Of course, an idea map made in this way is not screen-readable, especially if hand-drawn. However, screen-reader users can still make use of the idea map by creating a table with the main idea as the table title, subtopics arranged in cells across the top row, and more specific ideas listed in the column cells under each of the subtopics.
Figure 9.1: Mariah’s idea map.

Notice in Figure 9.1, Mariah’s largest bubble contains her general topic: mass media. Then, the general topic branches into two smaller bubbles containing two subtopics: Radio and TV. She then breaks TV down into Streaming and Cable, and comes up with further divisions for each. Based on this idea map, Mariah could decide specifically to investigate product advertising and product placement within various streaming services rather than on all types of media simultaneously. In addition, what she learns to apply within one “branch” may be applied to another cluster at a later time.

Prewriting strategies are a vital first step in the writing process. First, they help organize information and generate ideas concerning various aspects of a broad topic. Then, they help narrow the focus of the topic to a more specific idea that is appropriate to your document. A topic of appropriate breadth and focus ensures that you are ready for the next step: planning the organization of your document to ensure that it will accomplish your specific purpose.

This text was derived from

Weaver, Rebecca, Lynne Bost, Michelle Kassorla, Karen McKinney-Holley, Kathryn Crowther, Lauren Curtright, Nancy Gilbert, Barbara Hall, Tracienne Ravita, and Kirk Swenson. Successful College Composition, 3rd Edition. (2016). English Open Textbooks. 8. https://oer.galileo.usg.edu/english-textbooks/8. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Pantuso, Terri, Sarah LeMire, and Kathy Anders, eds. Informed Arguments: A Guide to Writing and Research. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University, 2019. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


  1. Image adapted from Rebecca Weaver, Lynne Bost, Michelle Kassorla, Karen McKinney-Holley, Kathryn Crowther, Lauren Curtright, Nancy Gilbert, Barbara Hall, Tracienne Ravita, and Kirk Swenson, Successful College Composition, 3rd Edition. (English Open Textbooks, 2016), 44, https://oer.galileo.usg.edu/english-textbooks/8. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication by Rebecca Weaver; Lynne Bost; Michelle Kassorla; Karen McKinney-Holley; Kathryn Crowther; Lauren Curtright; Nancy Gilbert; Barbara Hall; Tracienne Ravita; Kirk Swenson; Kalani Pattison; James Francis, Jr.; Claire Carly-Miles; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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