The Writing Process: How to Teach Prewriting

Prewriting is personal. No two people think exactly the same way. There are, however, certain styles of prewriting that appeal to different thinkers. Over the years, I developed a system of labeling students’ various prewriting styles.


Ordered prewriting is the process of categorizing and sorting. Two examples of this style are questioning and outlining. Through questioning, students organize their thoughts by writing answers to Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How questions regarding the topic. An outline is a formal list with headings and subheadings and can serve as the frame for a much longer piece of writing. The table of contents in most book is an example of an outline.


Graphic prewriting is a system of drawing the ideas behind the topic. There are countless examples, but each one visually represents the concept in some way. When students use a web, or mind-map as it is sometimes called, they write the topic in the center of a sheet of paper and draw a line linking related ideas to it. They continue linking ideas until the web is complete. T-Charts and Venn Diagrams are also examples of graphic prewriting techniques since both separate and contrast ideas through spacial reasoning.


Liberated prewriting allows thoughts to flow naturally as they occur. Through free writing, the writer writes every thought that comes to mind relevant to the topic. When students choose to list, they will write words or short phrases in quick succession as thoughts occur. This “stream of consciousness” allows for the uninterrupted flow of creative ideas, but can get messy and confusing if the ideas are not later reviewed for continuity of thought.  

Tip #1

Teach students to underline, circle, highlight, and cross out with abandon within their prewriting to lump similar ideas together.  Prewriting is not supposed to be pretty, nor is it intended to be a submitted piece for summative assessment.

Tip #2

Teach each style of prewriting with trial prompts so that students have a chance to test which prewriting technique is most comfortable for them. Once you do this, STEP BACK and let your learners decide which style works for them.  As long as they are organizing their thoughts well, your job is done.


Download a handout of my system for organizing prewriting strategies here: Pre-writing (Brainstorming) Methods

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