No matter how naturally gifted you are with words or how vivid your imagination is, one truth remains: Good writing isn’t accidental. It’s the product of a well-structured process that includes prewriting, drafting, revising, and proofreading. In this article, we’re focusing on the first step of prewriting and answering the question: What is it? Why is it needed? How do you prewrite effectively?
A veteran writer once told me that writing is like building a house—the foundation is just as important as the rest of the structure. Prewriting is the foundation of your story. It’s also the blueprint that guides your construction.
It's easy to dismiss prewriting as tedious or unnecessary, especially when just writing from the seat of your pants is often glamorized. Most writers, me included, love the process of wordsmithing, and, quite frankly, prewriting can feel like an annoying prerequisite.
But prewriting is an essential part of the novel-writing process. Remember that your mission as an author isn't to simply cobble together words in hopes of creating a universally appealing story. You also must build a rock-solid story that won’t fall apart upon closer inspection.
Let's delve into why prewriting is a non-negotiable part of the writing process and how to implement it effectively.
What is Prewriting?
Prewriting is the stage that happens before your creative writing begins. It is where your ideas are explored and refined.
Prewriting includes outlining, storyboarding, and researching. It might be done as a series of scribbled notes or as a detailed outline. Some writers have physical binders for their prewriting. For others, everything is digital.
The format isn't significant. What is important is that you get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper (or screen). This act begins the process of building the necessary foundation for your story.
If your mind has ideas trapped in there, they don’t have the room to breathe. They get stuck in all the other notions in your mind, some of which have nothing to do with your creative work, such as buying milk or doing laundry.
So, instead of forcing your ideas to battle for dominance in the ancient Roman Colosseum known as your brain, prewriting allows you to isolate your creative ideas and carefully nurture them.
Contrary to what some believe, prewriting isn’t restrictive, either. Prewriting lets you explore all possible ideas and angles without immediately worrying about their viability or coherence. There's no pressure to create polished prose. Simply jot down everything that comes to mind about a specific topic.
Prewriting ensures you're not staring at a blank page without a plan when you start writing.
The Benefits Of Prewriting
Let's explore how prewriting can supercharge your writing process.
Prewriting helps you see the big picture. As a result, the time you spend prewriting will reduce the time you spend staring at a blank page while waiting for an idea to appear.
Reduces Stress And Anxiety
As writers, we often worry about future readers' opinions. That can inhibit the writing process. However, when you have a plan of what to write, you’re more motivated just to start writing. Prewriting allows you to refocus your energy on writing instead of worrying.
Prewriting provides clarity. Use it to gain a greater understanding of your story and its character. You can dissect complex ideas and explore them in depth without fear because no one will see you prewriting unless you share it with them.
Facilitates Creativity And Exploration
With prewriting, you can let your imagination run wild and explore unconventional angles without the pressure of producing a polished piece.
You can throw logic to the wind and let your creativity lead. You might stumble upon an innovative perspective or an unexpected plot twist that adds a unique touch to your work.
Improves Coherence And Engagement
Every compelling narrative is well-planned. Prewriting can help build a strong, coherent story arc that engages your readers.
In your prewriting phase, you can outline your narrative arc, plan the pacing of your story, and identify key turning points.
Enhances The Revision Process
Prewriting also plays a crucial role in the revision process. After drafting, you can refer back to your outline or prewriting notes as a roadmap. Use it to identify missing elements you want to include in your story. If you’ve deviated from your original plan, you can use your notes to decide if the change enhances or detracts from your tale.
Remember, prewriting isn't just about planning. The main benefit of prewriting is that it empowers you to write more efficiently, confidently, and creatively.
Top Prewriting Strategies
Let's explore the most effective prewriting strategies and how to use them.
Here are the most ways to brainstorm in your prewriting process:
Freewriting is a non-stop, timed writing exercise to encourage free thought and overcome blocks by putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and writing whatever comes to mind without worrying about grammar, punctuation, or coherence.
To free write, set a timer for a specific time (10 or 15 minutes, usually) and start writing without stopping or censoring yourself. This process can help you uncover ideas you may not have thought of under more restrictive circumstances.
Use freewriting to explore a character's background, a potential plot twist, or a scene's atmosphere. Don't worry about grammar, punctuation, or sentence structure—just let your thoughts flow.
2. Mind Mapping
Mind mapping is a visual brainstorming technique where you start with a central concept and then branch out to related sub-topics to create a map of your thoughts and how they connect.
Start with a central idea in the middle of a page, then draw branches outwards with related ideas. This visual form of brainstorming can help you see connections and explore different paths.
Use mind mapping to build your plot structure, flesh out your characters, or even explore a central theme in your story. Seeing these relationships visually can provide you with new insights.
Listing is a prewriting technique where you simply jot down all the ideas, thoughts, or points that come to your mind about a particular topic in an unstructured list.
Write down as many ideas as possible related to your topic. Focus on recording your thoughts quickly. You can prioritize them later.
List potential story events, character traits, or thematic elements. Review your list afterward and circle the ideas that resonate the most with you.
Researching is vital in prewriting because it provides the factual foundation that you’ll use to build your story. Researching allows you to confidently enter the creative writing stage with relevant facts, reliable details, and a comprehensive understanding of your subject matter. This thoroughness is essential in genres that must be accurate, such as hard science or historical fiction, but every genre leans on a bit of logic.
A story built on research has a foundation of truth and authenticity that will make it believable, immersive, and impactful. Without proper research, even the most imaginative stories can lose their grounding and, subsequently, their connection with the reader.
Before you dive into writing, spend some time researching your topic. Doing so will provide valuable background information, inspire new ideas, and add depth to your writing. Use reliable sources like academic databases, reputable news outlets, or primary sources for your research.
As you conduct your research, jot down important information, facts, and ideas that you come across. These notes will ensure you have all the necessary details at your fingertips when you start writing. And don’t forget to organize your notes into categories for easy reference later. Use digital tools like Evernote or Google Docs to keep your notes in one place and accessible from anywhere.
Organizing your prewriting is an essential step that brings structure and direction to your ideas, facilitating a smoother and more efficient writing process. Here are two fundamental elements of this process:
Outlining is the roadmap for your narrative journey. Listing your story’s sequence of events will ensure you never get lost during the writing process. You can always refer to it to remember where you are and where to go.
Create a list of the main plot points in the order you plan to write about them.
2. Creating a Storyboard
Storyboarding involves sketching your ideas visually, like a comic strip. It's beneficial for visual thinkers who prefer to “see” their plots acted out.
Draw your scenes on sticky notes or index cards and arrange them on a board. This way, you can easily rearrange them as you refine your plot.
Remember, different writing tasks may call for different prewriting strategies. The key is experimenting with various techniques and determining what works best. Then, apply those strategies consistently to make the most of your prewriting phase. You'll be amazed at how much smoother and more enjoyable your writing process becomes.
Challenges Of Prewriting And How To Overcome Them
Prewriting, despite its benefits, can sometimes present challenges. Let's address a couple of common ones and discuss some practical solutions.
1. Analysis Paralysis
Analysis paralysis occurs when an author overthinks the prewriting phase and finds it hard to move on to the actual writing. This paralysis can happen when brainstorming the perfect idea, mapping the superior plot, or creating the ideal character profile.
Solution: Embrace the concept of the "shitty first draft" introduced by author Anne Lamott in her book 'Bird by Bird.' Remember, the goal of prewriting isn't to create perfection. It's to lay a foundation that you can refine and improve during the writing and revision processes. Give yourself the freedom to generate and jot down all ideas, regardless of how rough or imperfect.
2. Overwhelming Research
Research is essential to prewriting, especially for specific genres. But it's easy to get lost in the sauce and feel overwhelmed.
Solution: Plan your research. Set specific goals for each research session, like finding five reputable sources related to your topic or uncovering three interesting facts about your setting. This limitation keeps you focused and helps prevent information overload.
3. Unclear Goals
Without clear goals, prewriting can become aimless and unproductive. Authors may feel like they're not progressing fast enough or don’t know where to focus.
Solution: Set clear, specific goals for your prewriting phase. It could be creating a detailed outline, fleshing out a character's backstory, or researching a particular aspect of your setting.
Break down your prewriting goals into manageable tasks and tackle them individually. This compartmentalization will make the process more manageable and give you a sense of achievement as you complete each task.
By recognizing these potential challenges and implementing these solutions, you can make your prewriting phase more efficient, enjoyable, and effective.
Prewriting is the foundation of compelling storytelling. It may seem time-consuming or even unnecessary at first glance, but prewriting is both a time saver and a north star that will guide you if ever you’re lost.