6 Most Effective Prewriting Strategies for College Students

Prewriting is an activity that allows the student to get enough ideas to confidently begin writing an essay or a research paper. 

I’m Tutor Phil, and in this tutorial I’ll give you six most effective prewriting strategies that will:

  • Save you time
  • Get your ideas flowing
  • Result in a well-written essay or paper

So, if your goal is to complete your writing assignment quickly and get an excellent grade, here are your…

6 Prewriting Strategies for College Students

Prewriting Strategy 1. Pre-Structuring

Pre-structuring is by far the most important and useful strategy of all the prewriting strategies. Use it before you resort to any of the others, and you’ll save yourself a lot of time, energy, and frustration.

What Is Your Goal?

Before you do anything else for this writing assignment, ask yourself – “What is my goal, really?”

You may discover that your goal is not to do a bunch of writing or brainstorming. It’s not to spend a lot of time doing writing exercises. 

Your real goal is probably to write a great essay or research paper, get an excellent grade, and learn something in the process. 

If that is your goal, then here is a simple truth: prewriting is usually just getting ready to get ready. 

I know this sounds like blasphemy. But I said “usually” it does. So, how do you make the most of it and write that amazing essay quickly and effectively?

Know Your Outcome

You see, if you don’t know your outcome, the prewriting process can stretch out for days or even months, depending on what you’re writing. I’ve had students who spent months in research before they wrote the first sentence in their master’s theses. 

Don’t do that. Here is what you should do instead:

Get as much clarity as possible about your main and supporting points as early as possible. 

If you do this step and skip everything else, you’ll write that essay quickly and easily. But if you don’t, you could end up wasting a whole lot of time.

So, what am I talking about here?

A Quick Lesson in Neuroscience

You see, in your brain you have this amazing mechanism called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). This system works like a self-guiding missile. 

When your brain knows the outcome, it is empowered to find solutions. However, when the outcome is fuzzy or not known at all, finding the solution can take forever.

In fact, it may never come because it’s like finding a building in a large city without an address or a description. You’ll probably never find it. 

This is why I came up with Pre-Structuring as a prewriting strategy. So, how does Pre-Structuring work? It involves three steps. 

Step 1. Use the Power of Three

No matter what your essay is about, no matter how many pages you need to write on the topic, here is what is always true:

Your essay must have one main point (also known as the thesis) and several ideas that serve to support the main point.

The first goal of prewriting is for you to clarify exactly what your main point will be. Your next goal is to identify the supporting points. 

Your main and supporting ideas (basically, your thesis statement) can remain a mystery even if you’ve done a lot of prewriting. You may have dozens of ideas to choose from. And this can make you confused and overwhelmed instead of helping you.

So, here is what you should do to make your life infinitely easier:

Use the Power of Three to decide that you’ll have three supporting ideas for your main point. No more and no fewer.

If you do this, now you know what structure you’re aiming for. You tell your brain that you are looking for one main and three supporting ideas.

This is much better than just reading a bunch of material and doing some freewriting, all of which may feel like aimless wandering without knowing where you’re headed. 

But if you take this simple step, your brain will become alert and ready to give you the answers you need to write this paper. 

Step 2. Outline your word count

Your instructor should tell you how many pages or words she wants in this writing assignment. If she doesn’t make it clear, ask her about the exact expectation. This will help you because it will give you more clarity about the final outcome.

Let’s assume that you have to write 1000 words. If that is the case, and you know from the previous step that your essay will have three supporting points, then it’s easy for you to create the following outline:

Once you have this picture clear in your head (or, better – on paper), this contributes to your clarity about this writing assignment tremendously. 

Note that this is a nice outline, too. Is it possible to have an outline without even knowing what you’re writing about? Absolutely! And the diagram above is the proof. 

Remember, the more you can know and decide early on, the easier the rest of the process.

Step 3. List any other known facts about this assignment

By now, you know your overall structure down to the word count for each section of the paper. Now, using your assignment description, make a bulleted list of other details that you know for sure about this assignment. 

For example, you may know that:

  • It should be about one of the main characters of the play (maybe it has to be about one particular character)
  • You should answer one or more specific questions. Write them down in order.
  • You must include some kind of a figure of speech, such as a metaphor or a simile.

Whatever you know for sure, make a concise list of things that your professor has made clear. 

Guess what! Now you’re ready for the rest of the prewriting process. Now, as you do the other techniques, your brain will know very well what to look for. 

This means that you’ll get this assignment done a lot faster, and you’ll have an easier time doing the actual writing. 

The last tip I’ll give you in this technique is to minimize the rest of your prewriting. Try to get the main point as soon as possible. Then, try to get the three supporting points as quickly as you can, too.

Once you have these bits of information, stop the prewriting and get to writing. And if you need help with essay writing in general, I wrote a detailed tutorial on essay writing for beginners you might want to check out.

Prewriting Strategy 2. Listing

Listing is a type of brainstorming in which you simply create a bulleted list of ideas you may use in your essay. We already did a brief listing exercise in step 3 above.

This technique is broad and should result in a list of all ideas you could possibly use.

It’s essentially a brain dump. Just get any and all ideas relevant to the assignment on paper (or on the bulleted list in your word processor). 

Because you’ve already done Pre-Structuring, your ideas will flow faster, and you’ll begin to notice how they relate to one another. 

If you make associations between ideas as you populate the list, you can nest items under bigger ideas, creating a kind of a hierarchy. For example:

  • Beethoven wrote his music primarily for nobility
  • Beethoven wrote simpler music to please the crowd
  • Beethoven also wrote more complex music to satisfy his creative genius
    • His quartets
    • Other chamber music
    • His symphonies
  • Beethoven’s genius made his professional life difficult

If you see ideas relevant to a certain bigger point, list them under that point. Or, you can simply keep listing items one after another until you’re out of ideas. And you can group items together in the next prewriting technique. 

Prewriting Strategy 3. Mind-mapping

This strategy is especially useful after you’ve implemented the listing technique above. It is also known as “clustering” because you’re lumping together ideas that have something in common. 

This is where you’re getting closer to identifying your main and supporting points as per the Pre-Structuring strategy you’ve done previously. 

You can do mind-mapping on a piece of paper. You can even do it in the list of ideas you just generated, in which case you’ll nest related ideas under more general ones in the list.

But the whole point of “mapping” is to create a visual representation of your ideas. Some of us think visually and love pictures. If you suspect that you’re a visual learner, you can use some kind of a mind-mapping software for this strategy.

Here’s an example of a mind map:

I created it using an app called MindMaple for Mac. But you can even use a free online tool such as bubbl.us

As you can see, mind mapping allows you to visualize things and to “see” relationships among ideas. Once you’ve implemented this prewriting strategy, look for a way to fill out the structure you created in Pre-structuring. 

For example, in the mind map above, I have four categories of ideas pertaining to Beethoven’s professional life:

  • Health issues
  • Relations with nobility
  • Simpler music
  • Sophisticated music

And I notice that the last two items actually belong together in one category – Music. 

If this is the case, it looks like I may have one main subject and three supporting subjects for my essay:

  • Beethoven’s professional life
    • Health issues
    • Relations with nobility
    • Music
      • Simple
      • Sophisticated

The third section about music even has two nice little subsections. But I already know what to write about. And I can even write out a preliminary thesis statement based on this exercise:

“Beethoven faced difficulties in his professional life. His health issues bothered him constantly. The support of his patrons was a never ending roller coaster. And his music had to reflect the tastes of the public rather than his own creative genius in order to be successful.”

This is just a sample thesis statement that doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. But you can see how the first three prewriting strategies can get you to the point where you can stop prewriting and begin writing. 

Prewriting Strategy 4. Freewriting

Freewriting is a process in which you set a timer for an amount of time – anywhere from five to thirty minutes – and write nonstop until the timer sounds. 

The purpose of this is to get your creativity flowing and to just start writing something as opposed to staring at the blank screen. 

In freewriting, don’t worry about grammar and spelling. Just keep that pen moving or type the words, even if some of the ideas may seem silly or unimportant. 

This is also a kind of a brain dump. Use this strategy primarily if listing and mind mapping did not do the trick for you. 

I should confess that I never really get to the point where I want to freewrite. When I’m done pre-structuring, the listing strategy usually gets me to stop prewriting and start writing. If not, mind-mapping will do the trick. 

But if those were not enough for you, go ahead and do a session of freewriting. 

Prewriting Strategy 5. Looping

You may think of looping as a combination of freewriting and mind mapping. Once you’ve done your first round of freewriting, you’ll have a bunch of ideas.

Now, pick one of the ideas and freewrite for another 5-10 minutes with a focus on this topic or idea. This will create a little cloud of ideas on that certain smaller topic.

Then, you can repeat the process with another idea. After doing this a few times, you’ll have several little clouds of ideas much like nodes in a mind map. 

Use this technique only if the previous ones did not quite produce enough ideas to begin writing. 

Prewriting Strategy 6. Six journalists’ questions

The final strategy involves six questions journalists use when trying to come up with material. These questions are:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How?

Yes, these are basic. But they work because they make you think of answers to them. 

Interestingly, you can think of any sentence or statement as an answer to a question. In fact, thinking is really a process of asking and answering questions. 

Begin to ask and answer these six fundamental questions, and ideas will begin to flow. Of course, use this technique only if the first five didn’t quite do it. 

And here they are – your 6 most effective prewriting techniques that can help you write an essay or a research paper on any topic (source). 

Hope this was helpful!

Tutor Phil

Tutor Phil

Tutor Phil is an e-learning professional who helps adult learners finish their degrees by teaching them academic writing skills.

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