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English Composition 1

The Writing Process: Prewriting | Drafting | Revising | Proofreading | The Final Draft

The Writing Process: Prewriting

After you have decided on a subject for your essay, it is time to begin the writing process. If you think that you will have a well-written final draft of your essay after sitting down in front of your computer for an hour or two, it probably would be a good idea to adjust your expectations. There usually are several steps that writers go through as they are working on an essay, and the process of writing an essay usually takes much longer than just an hour or two.   

It is important to see writing an essay as a process. If you decided to build yourself a house, you probably would not begin by going to the lumberyard and loading your truck full of lumber, bricks, and nails. There is a lot of work to do before you get to this point, including the drawing up of plans for what you want to build and the determining of the building supplies that you will need. In a way, the same general idea applies to writing essays. We use the term "prewriting" to refer to the work you do on your essay before you actually begin writing a draft of it.

This page presents a few common prewriting strategies that can be helpful in getting you started on an essay. This information might be especially helpful if you have ever claimed to have "writer's block" when you had trouble working on a writing assignment. Why do we not suffer from "algebra block," "geography block," "chemistry block," or other such maladies? Could "writer's block" really just be a matter of not knowing about the prewriting strategies that help writers start writing? 

For our example, the writer, John, is asked to write an essay of at least 800 words on the photograph Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange. The approach to the subject is up to John, but the essay is supposed to include both descriptions of the photograph and interpretation of the meaning that the photograph expresses. A copy of the photograph appears to the right. Just click the image to see a larger version.

There is no one "correct" way to approach the writing process: whatever approach works well for you probably is the best approach for you. But if you are not an experienced writer, it may be helpful to experiment with some of the steps explained here. The example we use here involves an essay about a photograph, but the same prewriting and writing strategies can be applied to just about any writing assignment.

We will follow the writer step-by-step through the writing process, from the prewriting activities to the proofreading of the final draft. We begin, of course, with prewriting. This page presents several prewriting activities that may be useful as you begin working on an essay. 

1. Thinking

It may seem odd to list "thinking" as a part of the prewriting process, but this usually is the first step.

In the first few days after John is given his writing assignment, he thinks about his subject and what he might write about it. "Migrant Mother. What exactly is a 'migrant'? I'll look that up," John thinks as he is driving home from school: "The family sure looks poor. That's obvious. But is that the only point of the photo?" The next morning, while taking a shower, John continues to think about the photograph: "The title indicates that the woman is a mother, so those must be her children around her. Is the photographer trying to tell us something about what it means to be a mother?" John's questions lead him back to the photograph, and he decides that it is time to examine the subject of his essay more carefully.

The first step of the writing process can occur almost anywhere--while you are driving, while you are taking a shower, while you are mowing the lawn. The first step simply is to think about your subject.

2. Questioning

As suggested by John's thoughts about his subject, asking questions can be an important early step in the writing process. In a sense, we could even say that an essay answers questions about its subject, so a good early step can be to ask questions about the subject of the essay.

John has been thinking about the photograph, and his thoughts have led him to questions about it, so John decides that writing down his questions might help him figure out what he could say about the photograph in his essay.

Sitting down to his computer, John opens the word processor, looks at a copy of Migrant Mother, and starts typing a list of questions.

Answering some of these questions--such as "Where is the father?"--would require John to research his topic. The assignment does not call for any research or the documentation of sources, so if John does look up information about his subject, he will need to be careful only to use facts considered "common knowledge" (general information about the subject that can be found in many different sources) and he will need to make sure to put the information into his own words.

However, John finds that he is able to offer answers to some of his questions. For example, while asking himself, "Why are the children standing around their mother?" John thought that maybe the children are frightened or upset about their situation and are relying on the mother for comfort and support. He does not know this for a fact, but it seems like a logical conclusion that can be supported by the photograph itself. He then considers that the baby, resting in the mother's lap, is also relying on the mother. These ideas lead John to consider that the photograph might be suggesting something about the mother being a source of comfort for her children during the difficult times that the family is experiencing.

Asking questions helps John start to discover some meaning in the photograph that he had not noticed earlier.

3. Freewriting

You have a writer in you and an editor in you. The writer just wants to write. The editor, on the other hand, likes to critique what you write. In fact, the editor can be overwhelming at times, interrupting your writing with constant questions, making you doubt almost every sentence that you write. The editor asks, "Is the comma in the right place? Is this the right word? Is this confusing? Will people understand what I mean? Is this a complete sentence" The editor plays an important role. Without the editor, our writing would be a mess, but during the prewriting process, it might be useful to ignore the editor for a while and just let the writer free. That can occur with freewriting.

John decides that a few minutes of freewriting might help him explore more ideas about the photograph. He opens up a blank page in his word processor, gives himself ten minutes to type, puts the photograph where he can see it, and just starts typing. John's goal is to type as many words about the photograph that he can in just ten minutes, without stopping to change anything, in fact, without even stopping. As soon as John realizes that he has stopped, he just gets his fingers moving on the keyboard. As he is typing, John does not even look at the screen. That's what the editor in him wants to do, but this time is devoted to the writer alone. Below is what John typed in his ten minutes of freewriting.

Okay, a mother and her children. Two kids and a bsaby. The baby is dirty and has fat cheeks. The two kids look sad, even though you can’t see their faces. The mother does not look sad. She looks like she is concentrating on something. She is looking out at the distance. What the future holds for her. Trying to think of a way out of the situation. Their clothes are dirty and tattered. The kids are wearing shirts or coats that are too big for them. Probably hand-me-downs. Okay, keep tuyping. Black and white photograph. No color. It looks depressing because there is no color. The mother’s shirt is open a little, Maybe she was breat feeding her baby. The baby is sleeping, has a full stomach. The kids look like they have hair cuts with a bowl put on their heads. At least they have haircuts. The mother is trying to take care of them. Even the mother’s fingernails are dirty. The fingernails also looked like they are short—from working in fields. She does not not time to worry about those things. No water to bathe in? It looks like they are in some sort of tent. 1936. During the “Dust Bowl” days. They are migrant workers who are trying to find work. Mother is sitting up,. Not looking down in defeat. She has to be stong for the kids. She has responsibilities./

What John has here is a mess, but this is a sign that he successfully prevented the editor in him from interfering with his writing. (Conversely, this example shows the importance of the editor's job later on in the writing process!) John has attempted to capture on the page some of those fleeting thoughts that were running through his mind in the ten minutes that he was thinking about the photograph. The biggest challenge for John during the ten minutes that he was prewriting was to just let himself write without stopping to make any corrections or to read or correct what he had written, but he did it.   

Did John come up with anything valuable? Maybe.

Notice that there are some ideas here that could eventually find their way into John's essay: that the photograph was taken during the "Dust Bowl" days, when many migrant workers were suffering from extreme poverty and hardship; that the recent haircuts of the children suggest that the mother is trying to take care of her family; that the mother may have been breast feeding her baby; that the photograph being in black and white adds to its overall impression; that the mother looks as it she is trying to be strong for her children and looks as if she is thinking about what to do. All of these are good ideas.

By freewriting, John was able to discover some new ideas about the photograph. It is unlikely that any of the sentences in John's freewriting passage will end up in his essay--most of the sentences are weak--but freewriting did prove to be a good way for John to generate ideas that he might want to present and develop in an essay, once he gets to the stage of actually writing a draft.

4. Listing

Some people find it difficult to allow their words just to flow out on the page with a freewriting activity. "Listing" is a different technique that can also lead to many ideas that could become good material for an essay.

Listing, as the name indicates, simply involves making a list. For his listing activity, John used his word processor to write down anything he could think of concerning Migrant Mother. He wrote down the information in the form of a list, without any logic to the order of items on the list.

Here is the list that John came up with:

  1. 1936--Dust Bowl
  2. Migrant farm workers
  3. poverty
  4. dirty clothing
  5. children hiding their faces
  6. children ashamed
  7. baby sleeping
  8. some clothes too big
  9. sleeve of mother's shirt torn
  10. mother's hand on cheek
  11. children with "bowl" haircuts
  12. family in a tent
  13. mother looking ahead
  14. mother's eyes squinted or focused
  15. mother's forehead wrinkled
  16. mother just breastfed baby
  17. baby has fat cheeks
  18. children leaning on mother
  19. mother had dirty, short fingernails
  20. family has not bathed in a while
  21. photo is in black and white
  22. mother is not looking at the photographer
  23. mother has her head up

There is no order to the items on John's list, but after he makes the list, he looks for items that might be related in some way.

By copying and pasting in his word processor, John brings together one group of items from his list that he feels are logically related:

  1. mother's hand on cheek
  2. mother looking ahead
  3. mother's eyes squinted or focused
  4. mother is not looking at the photographer
  5. mother had her head up

Together, all of these items give John the impression that the mother is not ready to give up and might be focused on thinking of a way out of her situation. This may be a good topic for a paragraph in John's essay, as this prewriting activity has made clear that there are at least a few aspects of the photograph that point toward this idea. If John makes this idea one of the topics of his essay, he will return to the photograph and look for more aspects of it that might relate to the same idea.

John now looks over his list again to see if any of the other items logically go together, and he finds that some of them do. This prewriting activity has gone far in helping John develop ideas and in helping him see how some of the specifics of the subject might be logically related.  

5. Clustering

"Clustering" is another prewriting technique that allows the writer to generate ideas and also suggests ways in which the different ideas might be logically related, which can help the writer get a sense of how the essay could eventually be organized. 

John decides to try some clustering to help him with his prewriting on Migrant Mother. John uses pen and paper for this prewriting activity. He begins by writing the words "Migrant Mother" in the middle of a page, and he then circles those words. From this circle in the center, John draws lines out to sets of other circles words, each representing a major idea coming from the center. Then, around these other sets of words, John draws still more lines, circles, and words as he attempts to create a diagram of ideas about the painting. Below is an illustration of John's clustering activity.

As with the other prewriting activities, John had generated some ideas here, but he has also given a sense of organization to those ideas. From the "Migrant Mother" bubble, we have three major ideas: the family being poor, the mother supporting the family, and the mother not giving up. Then, from each of the bubbles containing these ideas, we have aspects of the photograph that relate to it. For example, "baby in lap" and "breastfed baby" are connected to the "mother supporting family" bubble because they both relate to the idea that the mother is supporting her family.

Clustering also can be beneficial because it allows you to "see" how various facts and ideas might be logically related. After his clustering activity, John is getting closer to the point when he can begin a draft of his essay.

6. Outlining

"Outlining" is related to both listing and clustering. Sometimes, especially for long papers, outlines can be quite detailed, but even a short outline can be helpful in giving the writer ideas and a sense of organization for an essay. After looking carefully at Migrant Mother, John feels that he has identified three important ideas that might be the focus of his essay. He writes down these ideas:

  1. The family is living in severe poverty.
  2. The mother is trying to care for her family.
  3. The mother is determined not to be defeated by her difficulties.

John thought carefully about the order of ideas for his outline, and this seemed to be the best order: start with how the family is poor and then discuss how the mother is strong and will survive. This order seemed to make more sense to John than discussing how the mother is strong and then discussing how the family is poor. Here, John is thinking about the "progression of ideas" for his essay. Notice as well than John had put his ideas in the form of complete sentences. This is helpful because a complete sentence presents a completed thought, better conveying John's meaning than just a few words would. 

Even a brief outline such as this one can be helpful, but John thinks that adding more information to his outline might make it easier for him to write a draft of his essay, so, under each major topic, he adds some details that might be used to help him develop his essay.

  1. The family is living in severe poverty.
    a. The mother is a migrant--a poor farm worker.
    b. It is 1936, during the "Dust Bowl."
    c. Their clothing is dirty and tattered.
    d. Some of the clothing is too big.
    e. Their skin is dirty: they have not bathed recently.
    f. They appear to be living in a tent.
     
  2. The mother is trying to care for her family.
    a. The mother is at the center of the photograph--the center of the family.
    b. Two of her children are resting on her shoulders.
    c. The children appear to have recent haircuts.
    d. A baby is asleep in her lap.
    e. The baby may have just been breastfed.
     
  3. The mother is determined not to be defeated by her difficulties.
    a. The mother is not looking down in defeat.
    b. The mother is looking ahead.
    c. Her hand on her cheek makes her look focused.
    d. She is not even distracted by the photographer. 

John probably does not have enough information here for a well-developed essay, but his outline gives him an excellent starting point as he begins writing his essay. He can use this outline to get him started, and he can continue to study the photograph to look for additional details that he might describe to help him support and develop his ideas.  

In Summary

Most likely, no writer will use all of these prewriting activities, but using at least a few of these techniques can make it much easier to begin writing an essay. People who sit down to a blank screen and cannot understand why an essay is not just flowing onto the page probably have left out some important steps in the writing process.

After John had finished with his prewriting activities, he feels confident that he will be able to start writing a draft of an essay, so John begins the drafting process.

The journey continues with Drafting.   

This page was last updated on Thursday, June 06, 2013. Copyright Randy Rambo, 2006.