Pre-writing techniques

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The following brainstorming & pre-writing techniques can be helpful for less experienced writers, especially in a second language. These are especially helpful and necessary steps when dealing with writer's block. Especially for beginners or those struggling with writer's block, a combination of techniques will be needed. Regardless of the initial brainstorming steps, at some point, an outlining process is highly recommended, in order to organize ideas into a clear logical structure for an essay or paper. Try these methods, and find what works for you – especially when you’re stuck.

1 Free writing

Forget about apathy, self-criticism, resentment, anxiety about deadlines, fear of failure, your expectations of yourself, others’ expectations of you, or other forms of resistance. Just put something on paper (or the computer screen) in raw form. Then you can go back later to revise it and put it in presentable form. First,

  • Write whatever comes to mind, no matter how raw or incomplete the ideas or sentences are.
  • Pay no attention to grammar, spelling, punctuation, neatness, or style. Nobody else needs to read what you produce here. The correctness and quality of what you write do not matter; the act of writing does.
  • Don’t worry about complete sentences or making sense to other readers.
  • Deliberately forget about who you are writing for – audience, potential readers, their expectations, and even your own expectations for nice, polished writing.
  • Give yourself a time limit. Write for one or ten or twenty minutes, and then stop.
  • Keep your hand moving until the time is up. Do not pause to stare into space or to read what you’ve written. Write quickly but not in a hurry.
  • If you get off the topic or run out of ideas, keep writing anyway. If necessary, write nonsense or whatever comes into your head, or simply scribble: anything to keep the hand moving.
  • If you feel bored or uncomfortable as you’re writing, ask yourself what’s bothering you—and write about that.
  • Sometimes your creative energy is like water in a kinked hose, and before thoughts can flow on the topic at hand, you have to straighten the hose by attending to whatever is preoccupying you.
  • When the time is up, look over what you’ve written, and mark passages that contain ideas or phrases that might be worth keeping or elaborating on in a subsequent free-writing session.
  • Don’t worry about making ideas, connections between ideas, and logical flow clear at first. But you should do that later when you revise it.

After you have something on paper or on the screen, then revise it later:

  • Revise it later by first making ideas, connections, and logical flow clear to yourself on paper, then by making them clear enough to potential readers.
  • Revise logical flow, grammar and wording in several stages with the audience in mind.

2 Talking – social brainstorming

Try talking to a friend about the writing task – brainstorming together can be productive and less stressful. You can also try talking to yourself or a family pet to brainstorm, as long as friends and family members don’t conclude that you’re in need of counseling or other “help”.

3 Concept maps

Known as mental maps, concept maps, semantic maps (though this properly refers to something else in computer science and related fields) or such. Just put down words and phrases on paper, draw connections between them, and fill in connections with descriptions of the relationships between ideas. Other methods of graphically brainstorming: a simple flow chart, a Venn diagram, and a tree diagram.

4 Outlining

Outlining can be good for generating ideas, as well as for organizing ideas after brainstorming. This allows you to arrange things according to relationships and degree of importance, with less important items under larger, more important concepts or categories that they are related to.

An outline is an important step, whether in actual practice one outlines mentally, or sketches an outline on paper, in a text document, or in one’s slides. One should organize an outline around 3-5 main points, and each main point with 3-5 subpoints, and so on. An essay or presentation will be more coherent and easy to follow if the student follows the “3-5” principle. This is because human working memory can best keep in mind 3-5 items, so it will be easier for readers or listeners to follow the flow of an essay or presentation. An outline looks like so, though the lettering and numbering style is up to the student.

Main point #1
Main point #2
Main point #3
Main point #4

Which can be further elaborated like so.

A. Main point #1
1. Subpoint 1
2. Supboint 2
3. Subpoint 3
4. Subpoint 4
B. Main point #2
1. Subpoint 1
2. Subpoint 2
3. Subpoint 3
C. Main point #3
1. Subpoint 1
2. Subpoint 2
3. Subpoint 3
D. Main point #4
1. Subpoint 1
2. Supboint 2
3. Subpoint 3
4. Subpoint 4
5. Subpoint 5
E. Conclusion

Each subpoint would then have supporting details – evidence, facts, data, examples, argumentation, or such – to support it. In the following facetious outline, for example, each point would be supported with examples or explanations of how and why each idea would be effective.

I. Ways of tricking my writing teacher in writing my essay (when I don’t have much to write)
A. format tricks
1. extra large line spacing
2. large fonts
3. extra-wide font width
4. large margins
B. content tricks
1. teacher won't read whole essay
a. copy and paste same paragraphs over and over
b. repeat same ideas over and over with synonyms
2. teacher likely to read whole essay
a. say nice things about the teacher in the essay
b. include money (as a gift an expression of your appreciation) with essay when handing it in