Prewriting: Planning For a Successful Paper

By Jonathan Vivet

What is prewriting? More importantly, why should you spend time on an “extra” step when you could get to the business of actually putting substance down on your paper? Prewriting includes everything a writer does before putting words to a draft.

Imagine you’re building a house. You wouldn’t just start driving nails through two by fours hoping you can create a pleasing, structurally sound home, would you? Of course not. You would have a blueprint: a plan to guide the placement of your beams and the hit of every nail, in order to efficiently achieve your goal. The prewriting process is the creation of that blueprint.  It develops a plan that drives the purpose and organization for a paper, generally eliminating a huge chunk of time spent trying to overcome writer’s block as result.

So how can you create a useful blueprint for your paper?

Choose A Topic!

Once you’ve looked at your prompt and have a general idea about the broad questions being asked, you need to choose your topic. Try to come up with a topic that meets the paper’s requirements and that you are familiar with, interested in, and can fully develop. The following tools can help you pin down a specific topic for a thesis statement and help develop topic sentences.


The purpose of a freewrite is to get all the ideas you have onto paper before you go into depth on the subject. Don’t worry about complete sentences, grammar, spelling, punctuation, or any other technical aspect of writing while you’re freewriting; just focus on writing down your thoughts and ideas.

Set a timer for 5-10 minutes, and let your ideas flow! Jot down every thought that crosses your mind about your topic. If it sounds silly, write it down. Doesn’t make sense? Go ahead and throw it right in anyway. Keep writing until that time limit is over. You can even start t writing about things that might not seem entirely related; just keep writing for the full time. At the end of the freewrite you should have ton of material written down to draw ideas from.


This is generally the tool many students recognize as prewriting. “Brainstorming” is centered around the same concept as freewriting. The focus of a brainstorming session should be getting as many words or phrases onto your paper as possible. Unlike freewriting, you write these ideas down in a list format, as connected bubbles, as a tree that branches out, etc. You want to express as many ideas as possible, writing down everything and anything related to the prompt.

By choosing an idea from this list, as well as several others that relate to your core concept, you can began fashioning a thesis and topic sentences.

Substance for Your Topic Choice

By this point, you should have gone through most of your ideas directly related to the prompt. From this you should be able to draft some sort of rudimentary thesis. Think of this as a draft of your thesis because it might change as you work through your outline and begin drafting your paper.

The second step of the prewriting process is to create some concepts to support your thesis.

Bubble Chart:

A bubble chart begins with your main idea at the center of the page in a circle. From here, you can draw lines from the main bubble to smaller sub-ideas or connected thoughts. From each of these bubbles, lines can be drawn to another subset of ideas or thoughts and so on. Keep clustering until you run out of connections to make.

The first subset of bubbles could be turned into topic sentences to write body paragraphs about, using thoughts from farther along each individual chain as discussion points. If you aren’t inclined to make a physical copy, a ton of free resources online can be used to make a bubble chart. Sites like help you create a colorful, interactive chart in order to get the creative process rolling.

Ask Questions

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? So what?

Answering these journalistic questions in a variety of ways will help expand on the points you’ve already established. If you run into writer’s block, despite all the tools mentioned above, focusing on these questions can force your brain to move past the block. Using this strategy, you can gather basic information necessary to create connections to your analysis. This is a useful tool to help convey ideas for journalism, research, and creative pieces.

Create an Outline

This is the last step before your writing actually begins. An outline will set a foundation to fill in for your paper. You’ve already collected ideas and information that you want to use, created a rudimentary thesis statement, and identified connections to make. Your outline can draw from all of these exercises and organize them in a coherent manner. Complete sentences aren’t necessary, but you can use them if that’s what works best for you.

With a completed outline, you should be able to draft your paper, paragraph by paragraph, supporting your thesis with reason and focus. See our blog post on outlining: Organization and Outlining.

Once your outline is done, so is the prewriting process! At this point, you’ve achieved a detailed outline which can be used as the backbone for your piece. We’ve brainstormed, drawn connections, and logically organized all this information. All that’s left is to follow the blueprint you created and start building your paper.

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