Introduction to Prewriting (Invention)
When you sit down to write...
- Does your mind turn blank?
- Are you sure you have nothing to say?
If so, you're not alone. Many writers experience this at some time or another, but some people have strategies or techniques to get them started. When you are planning to write something, try some of the following suggestions.
You can try the textbook formula:
- State your thesis.
- Write an outline.
- Write the first draft.
- Revise and polish.
. . . but that often doesn't work.
Instead, you can try one or more of these strategies:
Ask yourself what your purpose is for writing about the subject.
There are many "correct" things to write about for any subject, but you need to narrow down your choices. For example, your topic might be "dorm food." At this point, you and your potential reader are asking the same question, "So what?" Why should you write about this, and why should anyone read it?
Do you want the reader to pity you because of the intolerable food you have to eat there?
Do you want to analyze large-scale institutional cooking?
Do you want to compare Purdue's dorm food to that served at Indiana University?
Ask yourself how you are going to achieve this purpose.
How, for example, would you achieve your purpose if you wanted to describe some movie as the best you've ever seen? Would you define for yourself a specific means of doing so? Would your comments on the movie go beyond merely telling the reader that you really liked it?
Start the ideas flowing
Brainstorm. Gather as many good and bad ideas, suggestions, examples, sentences, false starts, etc. as you can. Perhaps some friends can join in. Jot down everything that comes to mind, including material you are sure you will throw out. Be ready to keep adding to the list at odd moments as ideas continue to come to mind.
Talk to your audience, or pretend that you are being interviewed by someone — or by several people, if possible (to give yourself the opportunity of considering a subject from several different points of view). What questions would the other person ask? You might also try to teach the subject to a group or class.
See if you can find a fresh analogy that opens up a new set of ideas. Build your analogy by using the word like. For example, if you are writing about violence on television, is that violence like clowns fighting in a carnival act (that is, we know that no one is really getting hurt)?
Take a rest and let it all percolate.
Summarize your whole idea.
Tell it to someone in three or four sentences.
Diagram your major points somehow.
Make a tree, outline, or whatever helps you to see a schematic representation of what you have. You may discover the need for more material in some places. Write a first draft.
Then, if possible, put it away. Later, read it aloud or to yourself as if you were someone else. Watch especially for the need to clarify or add more information.
You may find yourself jumping back and forth among these various strategies.
You may find that one works better than another. You may find yourself trying several strategies at once. If so, then you are probably doing something right.
Prewriting (Invention) General Questions
Beyond the strategies outlined in the previous section, these questions might help you begin writing.
Explore the problem — not the topic
- Who is your reader?
- What is your purpose?
- Who are you, the writer? (What image or persona do you want to project?)
Make your goals operational
- How can you achieve your purpose?
- Can you make a plan?
Generate some ideas
- Keep writing
- Don't censor or evaluate
- Keep returning to the problem
Talk to your reader
- What questions would they ask?
- What different kinds of readers might you have?
Ask yourself questions
Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? So What?
Conjecture: what are the facts? Definition: what is the meaning or nature of the issue? Quality: what is the seriousness of the issue? Policy: what should we do about the issue? For more information on the stases, please go to the OWL resource on stasis theory.
Classical topics (patterns of argument)
- How does the dictionary define ____?
- What do I mean by ____?
- What group of things does ____ belong to?
- How is ____ different from other things?
- What parts can ____ be divided into?
- Does ____ mean something now that it didn't years ago? If so, what?
- What other words mean about the same as ____?
- What are some concrete examples of ____?
- When is the meaning of ____ misunderstood?
- What is ____ similar to? In what ways?
- What is ____ different from? In what ways?
- ____ is superior (inferior) to what? How?
- ____ is most unlike (like) what? How?
- What causes ____?
- What are the effects of ____?
- What is the purpose of ____? - What is the consequence of ____?
- What comes before (after) ____?
- What have I heard people say about ____?
- What are some facts of statistics about ____?
- Can I quote any proverbs, poems, or sayings about ____?
- Are there any laws about ____?
- Is ____ possible or impossible?
- What qualities, conditions, or circumstances make ____ possible or impossible?
- When did ____ happen previously?
- Who can do ____?
- If ____ starts, what makes it end?
- What would it take for ____ to happen now?
- What would prevent ___ from happening?
- How is ____ different from things similar to it?
- How has ____ been different for me?
- How much can ____ change and still be itself?
- How is ____ changing?
- How much does ____ change from day to day?
- What are the different varieties of ____?
- Where and when does ____ take place?
- What is the larger thing of which ___ is a part?
- What is the function of ____ in this larger thing?
Cubing (considering a subject from six points of view)
- *Describe* it (colors, shapes, sizes, etc.)
- *Compare* it (What is it similar to?)
- *Associate* it (What does it make you think of?)
- *Analyze* it (Tell how it's made)
- *Apply* it (What can you do with it? How can it be used?)
- *Argue* for or against it
Make an analogy
Choose an activity from column A to explain it by describing it in terms of an activity from column B (or vice-versa).
|playing cards||writing essays|
|changing a tire||making peace|
|sailing||rising in the world|
|running for office||teaching|
Rest and incubate.
(Adapted from Linda Flower's Problem-Solving Strategies for Writing, Gregory and Elizabeth Cowan's Writing, and Gordon Rohman and Albert Wlecke's Prewriting.)
More Prewriting (Invention) Questions
As a writer, you can begin by asking yourself questions and then answering them. Your answers will bring your subject into focus and provide you with the material to develop your topic. Here are twenty questions or "thought starters" that present ways of observing or thinking about your topic. Each question generates the type of essay listed in parentheses after the question.
- What does X mean? (Definition)
- What are the various features of X? (Description)
- What are the component parts of X? (Simple Analysis)
- How is X made or done? (Process Analysis)
- How should X be made or done? (Directional Analysis)
- What is the essential function of X? (Functional Analysis)
- What are the causes of X? (Causal Analysis)
- What are the consequences of X? (Causal Analysis)
- What are the types of X? (Classification)
- How is X like or unlike Y? (Comparison)
- What is the present status of X? (Comparison)
- What is the significance of X? (Interpretation)
- What are the facts about X? (Reportage)
- How did X happen? (Narration)
- What kind of person is X? (Characterization/Profile)
- What is my personal response to X? (Reflection)
- What is my memory of X? (Reminiscence)
- What is the value of X? (Evaluation)
- What are the essential major points or features of X? (Summary)
- What case can be made for or against X? (Persuasion)
(Adapted from Jacqueline Berke's Twenty Questions for the Writer)