Prewriting: rehearsing, converting, transforming

Writing-ClusterI’m fascinated by the alchemy of the writing process, how the writer progresses from the glimmer of an initial idea to the coherence of a finished piece.  I’ve always considered myself to be a planner and list maker, qualities that inevitably help with the early stages of a project.  But it’s only in researching the topic in more depth that I’ve become aware of the importance of the most hidden part of the process: prewriting. 

What do we mean by prewriting?  In the United States, at least, writers and educators have been theorising about it for a while.  As early as 1965, D Gordon Rohman defined it as ‘the stage that concerns itself with discovery’ (‘PreWriting: the Stage of Discovery in the Writing Process’).  Another, more recent, definition suggests that prewriting is a ‘rehearsal’, a way of ‘trying out a great quantity of ideas’ (Sherron Killingsworth Roberts, ‘Taking a technological path to poetry prewritng’, 2012).

Prewriting is the messy part, the phase where the dots are connected, the bit the reader (or listener, or spectator) never sees.  According to educationalist G E Tompkins, prewriting is the most neglected part of the writing process (Literacy for the 21st Century, 2001).  Yet, there’s a whole body of research on the importance of prewriting to both the quality of the final content and the writer’s satisfaction with the process itself – motivation to finish, and satisfaction with the creative process.

Prewriting then is a sort of groping towards something; it involves bringing together of disparate components.  In an essay written in the 1960s, in an essay entitled ‘Towards a Christian Aesthetic’, crime writer Dorothy L Sayers draws on religious language to express the shift that happens when something moves from the unconscious to the conscious brain: she calls it a ‘conversion’, whereby the event experienced by the writer moves from something happening to us, to something happening in us.  It sets in train a process.  As Gordon Rohman points out it is the writer’s job to ‘grope for the words which will trigger the transformation’ – both in the writer herself and, subsequently, in the reader.

If prewriting is so important, how do we do it?  What do we actually do?  Earlier this month, at the conference of National Association of Writers in Education, I collaborated in a panel that explored writing habits and processes.*  I took a poll, asking participants which prewriting strategies they used in their work, offering a list that ranged from reading and research to daydreaming, to freewriting. (It was interesting that daydreaming received a lot of votes, as did the use of graphical organisers like mind mapping and spider diagrams).  What became apparent was the breadth and range of activities used.

As a writer, it’s always good to be reminded of the importance of play in writing and of activities that underscore the importance of ‘what if?’  As a creative writing teacher, I’m increasingly aware of a need to pass this on, to set exercises that will help students internalise and reflect on the creative process in their own writing.  But this also presents a particular challenge: can we ‘teach’ prewriting, and if so, how?  How can we ensure we demonstrate a range of prewriting activities for our students so they can access the ones they find most helpful.  As Shannon O Melia puts it in ‘How Can Prewriting Strategies Benefit Students?’:  ‘In order to be beneficial educators need to implement instruction in a variety of strategies so students have the opportunity to find a prewriting strategy that works best for their abilities.’  In other words, one size shouldn’t fit all.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring a range of prewriting techniques and how they might benefit writers in the creative process.  For now, though, I’d like to know from you: as a writer, what prewriting activities do you find most effective?  And if you are a writer who teaches: how can we use these techniques with students?

*My collaborators were Rebecca Evans, Francis Gilbert and Andrea Mason.  Rebecca has written up her talk as a blog post here.  You can see a video of Francis’ part of the presentation here.


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