Essay Prewriting Techniques

Prewriting techniques are meant to help students get warmed up and start a free flow of ideas. This should be a low-stakes exercise, with just participation points awarded, if any, to cut down on anxiety or worrying about getting it “wrong.”

Copy the handouts for the students, or have them use their own paper. You may want to pass out the clustering example as a handout or use it as an overhead.
The reason short time limits are given on each exercise is because students should work quickly and spontaneously, and not over think each topic. Reassure students that no idea is too silly to write down. The point is to keep the ideas flowing.

Personal Brainstorming List:
Before beginning, have students make a list from 1 – 10 on their paper. Remind them that they should choose a topic that is meaningful to them and related to something in their lives. Then give them two minutes to think of as many possible topics as they can.

Group Brainstorming:
After Personal Brainstorming, have students form groups of 3 – 5 people. Give them
about 10 minutes to share their lists and ask each other questions. The students should get feedback on what the most interesting topics are, or what they liked to talk about the most. Ask them to write this down on their papers also.

Ask the students to choose two topics from their brainstorming session. For the first
topic, have them draw a circle in the middle of their papers. Then give them two minutes to make clusters of related ideas. In the example, you can see that the student started with “Images in the media” and branched off to different ideas.

Do a second cluster the same way with another topic. Ask the students to circle a section of one of the clusters that interests them the most.

Free write:
Give the students three minutes to write as much as they can on the ideas they circled on one of their clusters. Then have them re-read the free write, circle the most interesting thing, and start with that idea on another three-minute free write. If time allows, do the same thing for another round.

When free writing, students should never stop writing, even if they run out of things to say about their topic. If this happens, tell students to write “I can’t think of what to write next…” or something similar. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar don’t count.

Most essays, whether they are research papers, compare and contrast, or persuasive, will depend on an argument. To make sure students do not simply write an informational essay, have them do the last pre-writing activity when they have narrowed down their choices to two or three topics.

Ask the students to write down a topic, and an argument, that they will make. Using the example in the cluster, a student could write as the topic “media and eating disorders.” An argument could be “media images can be a cause for eating disorders in girls.” The opposition might be “eating disorders are caused by a mental illness and not the media.” This exercise helps students think through whether their topics have an argument and what direction their papers might take. Of course the ideas will change as they start researching and delving into their topics, but they will have a possible direction in mind.