There are many prewriting strategies you can use to help your students get ready to write. Here is a list of 11 and how to use them.
Teaching writing can be a daunting task, but by breaking the writing process up, you’re students will be more successful.
The best place to start writing instruction is with prewriting – and lots of it! I’ve collected a list of prewriting activities — defined and with examples — to help you get started.
What is prewriting?
Let’s start with a quick definition of prewriting:
Prewriting is part of the writing process in which the writer gathers ideas, explores the writing prompt, generates thoughts, and organizes them.
It is an opportunity for writers to expand their ideas about a prompt and think creatively and critically about what they want to say.
Why is it important to the writing process?
We often short-change prewriting activities, but they are so valuable!
Prewriting allows students to explore, test, and generate ideas. They provide students with ways to organize and expand on their writing.
Have you noticed this?
Students often pick their first idea and run with it.
And it’s often very difficult to get them to even look at other ideas. They are set with that first one! But often our first idea isn’t the best — we want our students to think critically and creatively.
Incorporate more prewriting strategies as you plan your writing tasks.
Ask your students to complete at least two (or more!) different prewriting activities before they begin drafting.
I want my students to start drafting when they are ready to go…with the ideas and the organization ready to burst out! I tell them that I want the paper to write itself. That can happen when they’ve done prewriting.
We want writing to be an act of discovery, and prewriting can help students get there. By trying out several activities, they can discover what they want to write about.
How to use prewriting strategies effectively
Always model what you want students to do.
For example, if students are writing narratives, start your own narrative right along with them. Show them how you would brainstorm or cluster.
Additionally, show students how you can “throw away” an idea. This will often lead them to a deeper, more creative approach to the topic. I always say, “throw away your first two ideas.”
Help them find discovery in their prewriting.
Writing is a form of discovery. We uncover how we feel, what we remember, what is important to us when we write.
As you model your own prewriting graphic organizer, share what you discover. It certainly doesn’t have to be monumental or personal.
Do more than you think is necessary.
Your students may all have ideas for what they want to write about as soon as you provide the prompt. However, don’t skip the prewriting! It will help your students organize their thoughts, come up with details, and fill in gaps.
Use prewriting activities as an opportunity to conference.
Go over prewriting activities (no matter how messy) to confer with your students. You will be quickly be able to see how ready they are to begin drafting, if they have a viable topic, and if the topic is too big (as is often the case).
What are some of the best prewriting strategies?
What it is: Brainstorming is probably the most familiar prewriting activity. It is simply a “brain dump” of ideas about a topic.
How to use it: The writer simply writes down all the ideas that pop into her head as she considers the topic. Don’t try to self-edit or speculate on the idea, just get it down.
After brainstorming, the writer will see ideas that “want” to group together. He may find himself gravitating to one idea over the others. Pay attention to these things.
Students may want to complete a clustering prewriting activity after brainstorming.
What it is: Clustering is gathering ideas and thoughts into categories.
How to use it: Look at the prompt and determine some big categories that might fall under the topic.
Students can write the ideas in circles (like a cluster). It’s helpful to label the clusters or color code them.
Use this technique after students have done some brainstorming or freewriting. This will allow them to create categories and pull ideas more easily.
Then what: After clustering students may be ready to start organizing ideas. A simple outline is ideal for this.
What it is: Free writing (sometimes spelled as one word) is simply writing about an idea for a specific period of time. It can be a stream of consciousness or in response to a prompt.
How to use it: Use freewriting as a way for students to dive in and explore a prompt or topic.
Set the time (start with maybe 5 – 7 minutes) and have your students write continuously. They shouldn’t worry about spelling, grammar, organization — they are just getting their thoughts down on paper.
After freewriting, students might want to complete a looping activity.
What it is: Looping is the perfect prewriting strategy to use after students have done freewriting. When using this technique, they’ll chose an idea from their freewriting to explore on a deeper level.
How to use it: Go back to the freewriting and choose a word, sentence, or phrase that interests them or that they think might make a good topic. Write that word, sentence, or phrase at the top of a new page, set the timer, and have students write about that topic until the timer goes off.
Then what? After looping, students may want to try clustering or even outlining.
What it is: Listing is just a simple list of ideas. This is a great prewriting activity for students who really don’t know what to write about.
How to use it: I think it’s easiest to put the topic or key word from the prompt at the top of the page. That makes it easy to stay focused on the prompt.
Allow students to create as many different lists as they like.
For example, if you prompt is to write about a time when you learned something, students may create lists that are titled, “school,” “family,” “sports.” This will help them narrow their topic.
Then what? Once students have a list, they have choices! The natural next step is for students to choose an item from the list that they feel some energy or excitement about. Use it for freewriting, brainstorming, or even clustering.
Mapping & Diagramming
What it is: Mapping (or diagramming) is a great visual organizational prewriting activity that helps students see relationships. Writers create a concept map of how different elements fit together.
How to use it: In its simplest form, this prewriting technique entails using shapes, symbols, colors, arrows, and lines. Start with the main idea in the center, and look for ideas that connect or are important.
By the end of a mapping prewriting activity, students should have a “bird’s eye” view of what their topic entails. This is really helpful in determining if the topic is too big.
Then what? After mapping, the next logical question is — “Is my topic too big?”
Use your writing conferences to determine if their topic is too big. This is helpful in preventing students from getting overwhelmed with drafting.
What it is: We’re all familiar with a standard outline form — a prewriting outline is an abbreviated form of that.
How to use it: Outlining is a great tool once students have completed some other preliminary prewriting. If they have done clustering or listing, they have items they need to categorize.
When you ask your students to outline for a writing project, remember that the outline itself isn’t the goal. You want your students to move from the prewriting activity to drafting, so don’t make the outline a complicated lesson. Keep it simple.
Then what? Once students have completed an outline, they should be ready to write a draft. An outline will guide them through their essay.
5 Ws and 1 H
What it is: The 5 Ws and 1 H are what journalist use — it’s the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a topic.
How to use it: Have students address each question. If they find they can’t answer a question, this may be a spot where they need to fill in with research.
Encourage students to ask more than just one question for each word.
For example, a student writing an expository essay on choosing a pet, she might ask: “Why is a pet important?” “Why should you research different types of pets?” “Why are pets beneficial to humans?”
Then what? This is another prewriting strategy that is very helpful in determining if students have narrow enough topic. A student could write an entire paper on just the question “Why are pets beneficial to humans?”
As students see the questions they are generating about their topic, they will often find that there are several topics they’d like to write about. This is wonderful! Students will see that they have a topic ready for their next assignment.
What it is: Using journaling as a prewriting activity is similar to freewriting. Students write about the topic. It is different from freewriting where the focus is to keep writing. Responding to a prompt in a journal is more intentional.
How to use it: Allow students to respond to a prompt in their journals or writing notebook. They may want to jump right into an idea they have about the prompt and begin developing their ideas.
Many teachers like to use morning warm ups that include writing prompts. Students can go back to these prompts and expand them for a larger writing activity.
Using a journal to respond to a writing prompt can also help students dig into their feelings and opinions about a topic.
Using a journal also helps with “writing as discovery.” As students write in their journals, they often discover what it is that they want to say, how they feel, and why something is important (or not) to them.
Then what? Like other prewriting activities, a journal response to a prompt isn’t going to be a first draft. Students can go back into their response and pull ideas, images, and thoughts that they want to include in a draft.
Students often write their thesis statement in the conclusion of a journal entry! So be sure that students write a concluding paragraph.
Pros & cons list
What it is: Students create a list of arguments in favor and opposition to a prompt.
How to use it: This prewriting strategy works well with arguments and persuasive writing activities. Even though students may be arguing one point or another, having a list of pros and cons can help them see where they need to strengthen their argument and where they can attack their opposition.
Have students make an actual list with two columns. One column in favor and one column opposed.
It can also be helpful for students to work in pairs with one person arguing one side and bring up all the opposing ideas.
Then what? After completing a pro/con list, students might be ready to work on their thesis statement. Where do they stand on this topic?
Once they’ve determined that, you may want them to create a brief outline that will guide their writing, or you may want them to complete a Venn diagram to dig deeper into the issues.
What it is: A Venn diagram is two intersecting circles that illustrate how two things are different and alike. (want to know why a Venn diagram is always capitalized? Here’s your answer!!)
How to use it: There is nothing like a Venn diagram to compare and contrast. And it is so simple to use.
Students can draw the diagram right into their resource book and fill it in.
Like the pro/con list, a Venn diagram makes an argument clear to students. Unlike a pro/con list, the diagram helps students see commonalities. Another important aspect when writing an argument or persuasive essay.
Then what? After students have completed a Venn diagram, they might be ready to put together an outline. This will help them determine what they will write about and in what order.
They will also be ready to begin addressing and refuting their opposition.
Ready to draft
Once your students have completed one or (hopefully) more of these prewriting strategies, they will probably feel ready to draft their essay.
When students feel like their essay will “write itself” you know you’ve provided them with solid prewriting activities that will make the final writing product more effective and easier for students to write.
You can find all 11 prewriting activities in this digital resource.
Or, if you’re looking for a little extra help with the rest of the writing process, check out my shop!
With gratitude for all you do,