The first stages of the writing process can often be the most challenging. When undertaking a writing assignment, you may find it difficult to know how to begin. Many people bypass the planning stage entirely and begin the writing process with the first draft. However, there are numerous benefits to taking the time to plan and prewrite before you begin the composition proper. Working to generate a well thought-out message in this first stage of the writing process may prove to save you time in the long run.
The first stage of the writing process takes place before you begin writing the actual message. Exercises such as freewriting, clustering, and outlining can help you formulate ideas, narrow down your topics, identify and distinguish main ideas from supporting details, discard redundancies, evaluate the viability of your arguments, and ultimately produce an effective result.
Freewriting is a pre-writing technique many people use to overcome writer’s block and to warm up the brain for a writing task. To begin freewriting, choose a topic you would like to write about. Write that topic at the top of an empty page. It can be either a one-word topic — like “Dentists,” for example — or a brief statement of the topic you’ve chosen or been given to write about. Set a timer for five to ten minutes and put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and go at it. When freewriting, you do not edit or censor your ideas as you go. The purpose is to get as much information as you can onto the page without stopping to think about it in any great detail. Write as fast as you can; the faster the better. If you can’t think of anything to say, write down that you can’t think of anything to say, something like: “I’m stuck but I’ll think of something soon.” Don’t worry about transitions, connecting the ideas, paragraphing, subject-verb agreement or even commas. Your writing may take you in some really unexpected directions, but don’t stop, and never think to yourself, “Oh, this is dumb!” If you get off the subject, that’s all right. Your detour may end up somewhere wonderful. The idea behind freewriting is twofold: you allow your creativity to flow as you write without judgment, and, in doing so, you may generate inspired ideas that you can apply to your writing assignment.
It’s probably a good idea to read your freewriting out loud when you’re done with it. Often the ear will pick up some pattern or idea that you hadn’t noticed even as you wrote it. Read your freewriting to a friend or have your friend read it out to you. Then it’s time to spend just a couple of minutes going through the freewriting with an aim toward casual rewriting. The word-processor is a big advantage here. Delete the “I can’t think of anything to say” lines and the pure nonsense. Are any ideas or patterns emerging?
Don’t give up on freewriting after one exercise. Many students think that it’s ineffectual at first. Freewriting is like any other kind of mental activity: you will get better at it. The first couple of times you try it, perhaps nothing will come of it. After a few efforts, though, the exercise will become liberating. Just as you would never start to jog without stretching a bit first, you will never try to write again without doing a bit of freewriting first. Sometimes, even in the middle of an essay, when stuck for the next idea, you can do a bit of freewriting to get you going again.
Here’s a five-minute example of freewriting on the subject of dentists written by a thirty year old author:
I’ve been going to the dentist since I was six. I can still remember the smell of the dentist’s office. I don’t know how to pinpoint what that smell was, but it always made my stomach do flips. It wasn’t bad, per se, but it wasn’t great either. I think the smell was rubber mixed with some other unidentifiable things. The waiting room was always full of old, sticky toys that countless other children had played with. My parents always told me never to touch them. Don’t ever touch them. When the dental assistant, always holding a clipboard, called my name, I shuffled begrudgingly into the mysterious corridor beyond the door. Then the buzzing sound and the garbled chatter of patients filled my ears. I can’t really describe what they sounded like. It was like people talking with their mouths full of food. None of the words actually came out. People had to guess what was being said by the grunts. The dentist was always friendly, but I never got to see his face. He always wore a blue facemask, so all I ever saw was dark, curly hair and blue eyes. The worst part about the visit was always the fluoride treatment. The dentist would always fill up the trays with cold, overly sweet fluoride and then place one snuggly onto my upper teeth and the other onto the bottom teeth. The assistant would then insert a kind of electric straw into my mouth, between the fluoride trays, to catch the excess saliva or fluoride that inevitably seeped out. It always made a sucking sound. Suck. Suck. Suck. I tried never to swallow so I wouldn’t taste any of the bubble gum or banana or mint flavoured gunk. I must have always had a terrified look on my face. Am I writing too much about the sounds and smells and not enough about the experience itself? Am I writing enough about dentists? Why has this become all about me? Time seemed to drag on forever whenever I sat in a dentist’s chair. When my visit was finally over, and the receptionist spoke to my father about making the next uncomfortable appointment, I always got a sugar free sucker, a new toothbrush, and some floss. One out of three isn’t bad.
Looking back over this paragraph, do you see any ideas that might lend themselves toward an essay on dentists or at least the beginnings of one? Why would one want to become a dentist? How have attitudes toward going to the dentist changed over the years? Will better toothpastes, etc. eventually make dentists obsolete?
If you are a visual learner, you may find clustering (also referred to as brainstorming or mind-mapping), a useful tool for generating ideas. The process is similar to freewriting in that as you jot down ideas on a piece of paper or on the computer, you do not censor yourself in any way. Don’t cross anything out because you can’t tell where an idea will lead you. When clustering, record your main point or topic in the center of the page, and then work your way outward by plotting supporting points that “branch off” from your main idea. In clustering, you jot down only words or very short phrases. You can use colours and images to define your ideas as well. This technique allows you to see, in a graphic representation, your thought process and differentiate main points from subordinate points. Don’t bother to organize too neatly, though, because that can impede the flow of ideas. When you do get a few ideas written down, you can start to group them, using colored circles or whatever you like, to find patterns. Draw linking lines as connections suggest themselves. Below is an example of clustering used to generate ideas on the topic of spring.
It might prove useful to organize the ideas that suggest themselves during the freewriting and clustering processes into a preliminary outline form. It is possible to write a paper without an outline, but it may lack organization or coherence. A tentative outline can suggest areas in which your paper needs additional work or supporting details to bolster main ideas or, on the other hand, areas which have too much emphasis and need to be pruned down to avoid an imbalance. It might also help you to see how ideas are related and where connections or transitions are necessary between sections of your paper. Furthermore, the outline will help you visualize how ideas fit within the thesis statement that is taking shape in your mind. Remember that your outline is only a tentative skeleton to hang ideas on; ideas can be lopped off or added as the writing proceeds. Your instructor might require you to submit a formal outline for approval before you write your paper or to go along with your final draft. If that is so, this tentative outlining process will serve you well later on.