13 Strategies for Prewriting to Help Your Students Efficiently Produce Writing 

Most students hate prewriting, but it is a vital part of the writing process that should not be skipped because it helps the rest of the writing process fall into place.  Students feel like prewriting is stopping them from getting their work done, but the opposite is true.  Your students will write more efficiently and with better success, if they use at least one, if not more, prewriting strategy.

My Most Memorable Student Who Hated Strategies for Prewriting

I have never met a student who looked forward to prewriting. Students simply want to get their writing assignments done.  The student who comes to mind the most is Edward (or that’s what I’ll call him here).   Edward was a sensory processing student.  He was looking for sensory input all the time.  He hated activities that were not of high interest.  He was incredibly intelligent and had a huge vocabulary because he loved to read so much.  In fact, he loved reading so much so that he would regularly start to pull his book out of his desk while a teacher was teaching.  Edward was a funny kid who had some social challenges but didn’t care what others thought, including his teachers.  Prewriting was not part of his writing plan.  He wanted to get the work done so he could reread Harry Potter for the 10th time.

What Students Really Think About Strategies for Prewriting

Edward’s dislike of writing is a bit of an extreme example, but we have all had students who do not like writing or prewriting.  Our students don’t see the point of prewriting because it seems like a way that the teacher drags out the writing assignment to make their lives more boring.  I will admit there have been times where I have thrown out the step of prewriting because I was not up for the struggle.  I hope I am not the only one who experienced this. 

What are Prewriting Strategies?

Prewriting is the part of the writing process where the author generates ideas, but it goes much deeper than that.  The different strategies for prewriting help writers think about the writing prompt, choose a manageable topic, identify their purpose and audience,  plan their main idea, expand their thoughts, and organize their ideas or information.  

The organization is a huge benefit of prewriting because so many students get stuck while writing because they don’t know what they should write next.  If they have an organized plan to look back at then they won’t get stuck, as much.

The more our student writers practice strategies for prewriting the better they will get at writing interesting creative pieces that truly share what they want to share. These strategies for prewriting will help our students dive deep into well-thought pieces of work rather than handing in shallow, surface-level essays that don’t really complete the assignment.

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Strategies for Prewriting

Prewriting goes beyond a list of ideas to write about or things that might be included in an essay.  Strategies for prewriting will help answer some main questions about the topic, define terms, or compile statements and thoughts that relate to the main topic.  Strategies for prewriting help identify supporting details, important facts, or gather ideas that can help with the storyline or argument.  Strategies for prewriting also support students in organizing their writing.  Each strategy for prewriting helps students prepare for writing in a different way.

After you read this article think about how you can challenge your students to use each of these prewriting strategies regularly.  Some of them complement each other well. 

Prewriting Strategy – Brainstorming

Brainstorming is when students write down all their ideas without restraint.  It’s like playing Outburst, if they think of it they write it down because you never know what will make it on the answer card or into the final draft.  Some people refer to this as a brain dump because it should be a massive, messy, unorganized paper full of good and bad ideas.

Next Steps: Organize the brain dump with another prewriting strategy. Try Clustering, Mind Mapping, Journalist, or Outlining

Prewriting Strategy – Clustering

Clustering is a way to create a web of thoughts around your main idea, literally.  In clustering, the writer puts their main idea or topic in the center of a page, usually in a circle.  As they brainstorm or organize previous thoughts they come up with subtopics that will be attached to the main idea with their own circle and line.  The subtopics can have their own little circle baby ideas as the writer expands their thoughts about the subtopic. 

It can be hard to create subtopics and continue to build off of them, which is why some teachers have their students brainstorm first and then use clustering as a way to organize their ideas.  The goal is to identify the main idea, subtopics, and details.

Next Steps:  Having students free write to generate more ideas or information would be great.  Students could also outline their ideas in preparation of writing.

Prewriting Strategy – Mind Mapping or Diagraming

Minding Mapping or Diagraming can be very similar to clustering.  Usually, the writer will start with the main idea in the middle of the page and start to build outward with their thoughts. The difference is the goal of mind mapping is to notice how intertwined and connected the writer’s thoughts are on a topic.

Have ever been writing and paused when you don’t know what to say next because you have two or more options, but aren’t sure which fits best?  Mind mapping could help.  Once the writer identifies the connections between the different parts of the topic it’s easier to see (yes this is a visual prewriting tool) what order ideas should be put in.  This visual prewriting could also show if a topic or idea is too big and needs to be narrowed down.

The connections that are being noted on the page can be done with colors, arrows, lines, shapes, or symbols.  What important is that the writer understands where everything is leading.  This is another challenging method so it’s a good idea to practice a slow release of responsibility through modeling, whole group, small group, and then independent work.

Next Steps: Narrow down the topic and mind map again or use the mind map to determine the order and start writing.  Students could also use the mind map to free write to gather more ideas or outline their idea before writing.

Prewriting Strategy – Lists

Lists are one of my favorite prewriting strategies.  A list is often how students generate ideas for a writing prompt.  You tell them they will write about one moment of their summer vacation and their list might be something like:

  • Pool
  • Lake
  • Beach
  • Zoo
  • Camp
  • Summer reading
  • Sleepovers

This is a fine list of summer moments.  When I write lists I often use them to write everything I know about a topic quickly.  I also use lists to compile a list of rhyming words.  Sometimes

SwimmingChlorineFloatsUnderwaterHandstandsMarco poloCousinsFriendsGrandma’sFoolsGhoulsMulesToolsRulesDroolsCools

I start with my topic in four categories and list ideas under each category.  So for my summer moment list, I could create a list similar to pools for each of those summer moments.

Next Steps: Now your students have a list of choices.  It’s a great idea to have them pick some of the best parts of their list for another prewriting strategy such as mind mapping, clustering, freewriting, journalist, or outlining.

Prewriting Strategy – Freewriting

Students love this prewriting strategy because in their minds they are starting their writing assignment.  They think what they write will be in their final draft.  Freewriting is intended to be an initial exploration of the topic.  Students can get their thoughts down on paper even if those thoughts are mostly questions. 

Part of the goal of freewriting is to write continuously without stopping.  Continuous writing generates ideas and builds students writing stamina.  You will see a huge difference in your students’ ability to free-write in just a month if you do it regularly.

Next steps:  It’s a great idea to make your students free-write again (after putting their paper in a desk or folder of course).  Starting again will give them different ideas and perspectives on the topic.  You can also have your students try looping.

Prewriting Strategy – Looping

Looping is when you take a subtopic and write about that.  Okay, let’s expand that simple explanation.  Say they had a list or free write and on that list, they mention coral reefs, currents, underwater volcanoes, and sharks.  In their looping assignment, they might take a closer look at sharks.  If you have them loop again they might look at great white sharks.  If they loop again they might look at great white shark attacks.  

Looping is when your students dive deeper into a more specific topic each time they write.  They are constantly looping back to the start of writing.  This is a great way for students to generate ideas and narrow their topics further.

Next Steps: Students might need to clarify or categorize their final looping piece in order to write an organized finished piece.  They might try clustering, mind mapping, or outlining their work before they start drafting.

Prewriting Strategy – Journaling

Journaling is similar to freewriting in that students are writing sentences and paragraphs.  However, students’ responses in a journal are more intentional.  Often times students will be working to answer a particular prompt when they journal.  Their goal is for it to make sense.

Many teachers will use journaling as a bell ringer.  Students can start to write about an idea or prompt for a set period of time.  That journal entry can be used later for more ideas or details in another piece or to help them kick off their next full piece of writing.  It’s kind of like a detailed list of ideas to turn back to when needed.

Journaling can help students discover what they really feel or think about the topic and life.  This method can also help students understand why they think something is important and what they want to say about it. It’s a useful tool to help them find their purpose for writing.

Journaling is an effective method to generate ideas for personal narratives more than other writing genres but can be used across the board. 

Next Steps: Next students can try looping or outlining to polish their ideas before diving into a full writing assignment.

Prewriting Strategy – 5 Ws and 1H or Journalist

I think every teacher has used this method of diving into defining the facts, even in a fictional narrative.  Whether they are researching, persuading, or writing a story; students should be able to tell you the answers to each of these questions.  Answering these questions can sometimes mean additional research, but that’s part of the point.  It helps students figure out where they have gaps in their knowledge or ideas that need to grow. 

As students ask and answer questions they will learn more, be more prepared to write, and find additional topics they might like to write about in the future.

Next Steps:  Students might want to take this information and outline it so that it is more organized before they draft it.

Prewriting Strategy – Talking

Talking can be an effective way to start a writing assignment.  There will be students who just can’t get going with any method, but when they have a conversation with a teacher, partner, or small group they can suddenly figure out how to get started.  I love this method because it helps make writing accessible to all learners.

Make sure that students are either taking notes or recording the conversation on a device so they can refer back to it later. 

Next Steps: Talking is a very basic method to get started so your students will need to complete another prewriting strategy with it.  Students can use any method after talking, but I would recommend lists, clustering, journalist, freewriting, or outlining.

Prewriting Strategy – Visual

Every writer thinks and plans differently.  Sketching or creating a visual idea of their topic is a great way to plan out a piece of writing.  It might work best for a narrative, but students are surprising.  I recommend using the comic book format for a sketching prewrite because it can help with organization when your students are ready for the next steps.

This is another method that helps make writing accessible to all learners.  Some students just have trouble getting the words down on that intimidating blank paper, but once they have a picture it’s easier to get started and a little bit fun.

Next Steps: Students will need to write details and create an organized order for their writing. Have your students try listing, mind mapping, clustering, outlining, or journalist. 

Prewriting Strategy – Researching

Research is the literal gathering of information from various reliable sources.  Students can use books, the internet, videos, and other media to gather their research.  Researching is a prewriting strategy that is obvious for informational or expository writing, necessary to make strong arguments in persuasive writing, but also useful in narrative writing.  How much research is needed really depends on which type of writing your students are working on, but every type of writing will be better with research.  The research will add important details or more accurate information.

Next Steps: After researching students will need to decide what information to include in their writing.  Students could use clustering, mind mapping, freewriting to help them start to organize and order their research.

Prewriting Strategy – Ven Diagrams

Venn Diagrams are a popular visual organizer among teachers to compare two or more things.  There are two (or more) overlapping circles.  The topics being compared are each written in one circle.  Students write details about teaching topics in their circle and any similarities they discover go in the overlapping part of the circles. 

Venn diagrams can lead to further research on the topic they are writing about.  Students might think of one detail about a topic and wonder if it’s similar to the counterpart being compared.  For example, if you compare apples and oranges you know oranges are citrus fruit, but what are apples, besides not citrus?

Venn Diagrams are best when your students have to compare two things. They are not ideal for every type of writing.

Next Steps: Students will need to take their compared information and create an organized outline before drafting their essay.

Prewriting Strategy – Pro and Con Lists

Pros and cons lists are when you compare the good and bad parts of a topic.  For adults, it’s often about taking a new job, getting married, or having kids.  But students can use pro and con lists to help write a persuasive paper.  Students might want to write about shorter school weeks.  There are pros and cons to a change of schedule. If they want to convince someone, like a superintendent, then they need to address real questions and issues.

Next Steps: Pro and con lists are similar to lists.  Students will often have to organize their ideas once they finish their list by deciding what information to keep and what order it should be written about in.  Clustering, mind mapping, or outlining could be great next steps.

Strategies for Prewriting Final Tips

  1. Model Writing for Your Students 

You can write your ideas and work on a projected device or whiteboard and model for your students how to complete all of these strategies.  Students will have trouble letting go of ideas that aren’t working, expanding on ideas and trying new things, so show them how to do it.

  1. Prewriting is a Discovery Opportunity

Students should be using strategies for prewriting to discover more about their topic and how to write about it.  Discoveries can be small ah-ha moments.  I love when I have those as a writer.  You will need to model for your students that the writer doesn’t know everything when they start and they have a lot to discover through prewriting before starting their first draft.

  1. Don’t Skip Prewriting

I told you I am guilty of skipping prewriting, but I see more value in prewriting every time I get ready to write a new blog.  Your students will learn the same over time and practice.

  1. Prewriting is the Perfect Time for Writing Conferences

Prewriting is a great time to start conferencing with your students.  You can check in with a lot of students without reading a lot of drafts.  As you talk with them (note that prewriting strategy) you will be able to help them find the right direction for their assignment with helpful suggestions.

  1. Use Timers.  

Timers for prewriting are awesome because it’s so much easier for students to engage fully when they know they are only expected to do so for 3 minutes.  Each month you can make the timer longer as they increase their writing stamina.

  1. Make Topics Visible on the Prewriting Page

Students need to write their topic in big letters on their page.  Having their topics written will help keep them focused and make that brainstorming paper easier to find later.

  1. Schedule Time to Walk Away

Try to schedule time for your students to take a break from looking at their prewriting.  A day is really good, but if you can manage 10 minutes to get up, walk around, do a spelling lesson and then go back to their writing that works too.  It’s like in art when you are supposed to step back as you work to take in the full picture.

  1. Simplify and Clarify

Your students may need to simplify, clarify, or narrow their topic if they can’t summarize and describe it in one sentence.  That’s a great exit ticket right there.  If they are unable to do this they may need to complete another prewriting strategy.

  1. Try Different Strategies for Prewriting  

I have often told you in this article that the next step is another prewriting strategy.  Your students will become better writers as they complete multiple prewriting strategies.  There is another way of thinking about this tip too.  As teachers, we often get comfortable teaching one type of prewriting strategy and we stick with it assignment after assignment because our students know what to do and it is easy.  Challenge yourself and your students to use multiple strategies for prewriting for each assignment and throughout the school year.

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