Prewriting Techniques: Three Ways to Get Started

By John Breedlove

When beginning a piece of writing, there’s no worse feeling than not knowing what you are going to write about. In a perfect world, paper topics would magically reveal themselves once you sat down to begin your paper. And sometimes paper topics do come easily. But when this doesn’t happen, when you have no idea what you want to say, or where to even begin, the writing process can become incredibly arduous.

But don’t panic. Even seasoned writers will encounter moments of writer’s block. The key is to have a system in place that helps you find the ideas, topics, subjects that interest you. The following are just a few prewriting techniques that could prove valuable when you get “stuck” trying to find an interesting topic.

  1. Freewriting. Start off by choosing a potential topic or idea that you think will be useful to explore. Don’t think about it for too long—the idea behind this exercise is simply to get words onto the page. Even if you start out writing about something that has very little, if anything, to do with your subject matter, don’t worry about it. The rule is simply to keep writing. You may want to start out writing for ten minutes; but during that time don’t stop for anything, even if you wind up writing down whatever is on your mind. This will get you in the habit of exploring topics and interests through writing. While much of what you write may not lead you anywhere, the goal is for you to eventually come across something (a word, phrase, concept, problem, or whatever) that will spark a more productive freewriting session next time, and lead you closer to your paper topic.
  2. Brainstorming. This exercise is especially useful for writers who have a vague or general sense of what they may want to write about, but aren’t sure what about the topic interests them. Brainstorming is similar to free-association where you write down words or phrases that come to mind regarding a particular topic. It’s an unstructured process, but the idea is to tease out interesting relationships that you were not previously aware of and to build on these relationships with each new brainstorming session.
  3. Journals. Keeping a daily journal to jot down important ideas, summarize information, and add your thoughts about the material you read, is a valuable way to generate material for your paper. When it becomes time to start writing, you can simply open your journal and reread the ideas and thoughts that have most interested you. Because journal entries are not meant to be exhaustive, they provide a series of thoughts that can be easily reread and a guide for understanding your own thoughts and interests. Of course, the earlier you begin your journal, the more information you will have to choose from when the time comes to begin writing your paper.

The writing process can be very unpredictable, which is why we need systems in place that will help make it a bit more reliable. So if you’re having trouble getting started with your paper, try one of these techniques and see which one works best for you.