Pen on written document

A writing process

By Vinetta Bell

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

During the pre-writing stage, also known as the brainstorming stage, a writer seeks to generate and develop ideas about a topic.

Techniques and strategies

brainstorm on paper

Pre-writing brainstorms can take many forms, including roughly drawn graphic organizers. Image source.

  • using free mental associations that might eventually lead to written notes or outlines
  • creating a personal inventory of interests and fascinations, likes and dislikes
  • conducting online or print catalog searches using keywords and questions
  • using the inductive or deductive reasoning process to identify a manageable topic
  • reading a text that addresses a similar topic; perhaps reading the table of contents, index, and chapter headings and subheadings to gain insight on the topic
  • creating a uniform set of questions to be answered about a topic (e.g. the “five Ws and an H” model: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?)
  • writing handwritten notes — organized or disorganized — on a note card, on paper, or in electronic form
  • writing a preliminary outline — formal or informal — about the intended topic and subtopics
  • creating a graphic organization of ideas (e.g. Venn diagram or circle clusters)
  • writing a draft of the thesis or hypothesis with an outline of key supporting details
  • creating a very rough draft of the opening paragraph that includes a topical overview

Starting off on the right foot

The term “pre-writing” may be a bit misleading because writing can and often does occur at this critical stage. For example, written notes and outlines, including graphic organizers, can serve as a record of one’s ideas and the sources of those ideas. A preliminary thesis or hypothesis could inform the process and the product.

Many people do brainstorm via their thoughts without recording those ideas and sources in permanent form prior to the next steps in the writing process. Most emerging writers, however, need to record their pre-writing ideas in permanent form so that those ideas can clearly inform and guide the thinking and writing process, resulting in a coherent, well-organized product or text.

Many students — and some teachers — want to skip the pre-writing stage because they see it as unnecessarily burdensome and time-consuming. However, teachers who dismiss the pre-writing stage as being completely unnecessary are performing a disservice to many of their students. Pre-writing is an essential part of the entire writing process because it enables the writer to begin documenting the process by which the eventual product will be formed and evaluated. It is part of a procedure that is necessary for accountability and reliability. Most professions include accountability and reliability in their standard operating procedures as written reports of preparatory work for use by the practitioner and for potential legal documentation and reference. Writers are no less responsible for accountability for their work than are lawyers and medical personnel.


Skipping the pre-writing stage is like taking a vacation without first choosing a destination: If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you get there? Fortunately, pre-writing can take many forms, and there are strategies that suit every type of writer. The following sites offer details on a variety of pre-writing techniques:

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University
The OWL offers a series of pages about pre-writing, including suggestions for strategies and questions that can jump-start the brainstorming process:
Developing Ideas for Writing (Pre-writing)
This page, from Empire State College at the State University of New York, provides pre-writing suggestions for a number of scenarios, including responding to a specific assignment and maintaining a response journal.
Prewriting Strategies
The University of Kansas Writing Center offers detailed instructions for a few pre-writing strategies, including looping — a free-writing technique that helps a writer narrow down his or her thoughts to one specific focus.

The strategies and processes used in the pre-writing stage not only help the writer formulate a topic and solidify ideas, they also serve as a kind of rehearsal for the rest of the writing process. As the writer uses the vocabulary associated with a particular topic, he or she becomes more well-versed in the subject and is able to express ideas with more confidence, organization, and clarity. All of this brings to mind the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

The answer, of course: “Practice. Practice. Practice.”

Just as a musician must practice his instrument in order to achieve his goal, the practice undertaken during the pre-writing stage guides the writer toward a specific goal: developing a well-defined topic that will eventually be couched in the language of a succinct thesis or hypothesis.