Writing Rundown: Persistence Pays Off in “Peripheral Presence”

This was a really hard essay to write. Not because I couldn’t figure out what to write about; I knew almost from the moment I read the prompt that I wanted to write about Dracula. On the contrary, it was hard because I had TOO MANY ideas for this essay – I had so many thoughts buzzing excitedly around in my head that my outlines kept coming out really scattered and disorganized. I went through, no joke, at least FOUR different outlines for this essay – and I refused to even start writing a draft until I’d sorted out what precisely was wrong with my outline, scrapped it for the third time, and started over from scratch. I went through several different organizational schemes, starting with one centered around a favorite Hitchcock quote about suspense that was a good idea, but ultimately, had no place in this particular essay. My outline eventually settled on the format that probably should have been obvious from the start – the one that related most closely to the prompt. My outline finally – FINALLY – took on the shape of an essay composed of a paragraph each for the three parts of the prompt (action, theme, and the development of other characters).

Once I had a draft written, it hovered on my computer missing only a conclusion for a long time, because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still missing something…some key component of my thesis that I hadn’t addressed thoroughly enough. I had actually surprised myself with a really solid working thesis, even though it was technically two sentences instead of one:

While he rarely physically shares the same space as our heroes, their knowledge of Dracula’s constant scheming and plotting spurs them to act decisively, take risks, and in a variety of ways give their life’s blood in service of his destruction. In a sense, Dracula is the one who turns them into heroes.

Reading through my draft, I realized that other than an initial paragraph about Jonathan Harker scaling the walls of Castle Dracula, I had neglected that second sentence of my thesis – the idea of Dracula being the one who turns them into heroes. THAT was arguably the most important part of my argument – how does his rarely-seen presence become significant? He turns the protagonists into heroes, and brings about his own undoing!

Once I finally figured it out, the essay clicked together pretty quickly. The whole idea of an archetypal hero is a big, complex topic that could probably have been its own series of essays, so I didn’t want to dive too deep into the idea of ‘what makes someone heroic.’ That’s for another essay. So I kept it to a few extra sentences at the end of each paragraph to point out the heroic nature of the actions taken by the protagonists, and the hand Dracula has in prompting all of those actions.

The moral of the story here is that persistence pays off – and that it’s far less intimidating to get the bulk of your brainstorming out in the prewriting phase than it is to rework an essay that’s already drafted. Scrapping an outline – or three or four – is easy. Scrapping three pages of drafted essay can be traumatizing. But sometimes drastic measures are necessary – take a deep breath, clear your mind, and come back to your prompt.

Writing Rundown: Deciphering a Prompt for “The Blanks Left Empty”

In today’s Writing Rundown, I want to leave the brainstorming process for a bit and discuss responding to a prompt. Take a look at the prompt I used for my last Literature Spotlight, “The Blanks Left Empty”:

AP Literature Open-Ended Prompt, 1975, #2:
Unlike the novelist, the writer of a play does not use his own voice and only rarely uses a narrator’s voice to guide the audience’s responses to character and action. Select a play you have read and write an essay in which you explain the techniques the playwright uses to guide his audience’s responses to the central characters and the action. You might consider the effect on the audience of things like setting, the use of comparable and contrasting characters, and the characters’ responses to each other. Support your argument with specific references to the play. Do not give a plot summary.

Whew! That’s a lot of information to sift through. Unfortunately, many high school and college-level writing prompts are as complex, if not more so, than this one. The best thing you can do as a student is to practice parsing long prompts into pieces and figuring out how to attack them. This can and should be part of your pre-writing for any prompt-based essay, so it’s a good skill to have. So let’s go through that block of text again, carefully, and figure out exactly how to tackle this assignment.

The first thing I do when confronted with a prompt this long is to scan through the whole thing and highlight, circle, underline, or otherwise mark any specific instructions the prompt gives. A specific instruction is a word or phrase that indicates a concrete thing they want to see you do in your paper. For this prompt, here’s what I’ve got after that stage:

AP Literature Open-Ended Prompt, 1975, #2:
Unlike the novelist, the writer of a play does not use his own voice and only rarely uses a narrator’s voice to guide the audience’s responses to character and action. Select a play you have read and write an essay in which you explain the techniques the playwright uses to guide his audience’s responses to the central characters and the action. You might consider the effect on the audience of things like setting, the use of comparable and contrasting characters, and the characters’ responses to each other. Support your argument with specific references to the play. Do not give a plot summary.

Okay, let’s go through those points one by one and sort out what they mean for our paper.

Select a play you have read

Fairly straightforward here. If we were given this prompt in the context of an English Lit class, it might specify which play we should be using – usually the one the previous unit centered around. But this is an open-ended prompt, so they’re keeping it more general. The important thing, though it seems obvious, is that you have to have read the play in question. Ideally, you will have read it recently enough to remember it well, and you should have a print copy of the play with you while you write, to cite page numbers for your examples. Don’t make the mistake of trying to write a convincing essay about a play you either haven’t actually read, or haven’t read recently enough to remember well. You’ll only bring yourself an unnecessary headache.

In my case, I immediately went to Assassins as one of my favorite plays, but I kept a few other play ideas in my back pocket just in case this first one didn’t work out. Second-choices for me included Death of a Salesman and Waiting for Godot, but I thought Assassins would be a more fun essay to write, so I started there.

The next highlighted instruction is the big one, the actual ‘prompt’ part of the text:

explain the techniques the playwright uses to guide his audience’s responses to the central characters and the action.

There’s a lot in this sentence, so it bears thinking about a bit more carefully. Let’s break it down even further:

explain the techniques the playwright uses

Okay, so this is going to be an essay about the craft of playwriting – the ways the author creates the story on a structural and artistic level. We’re not so much talking about the themes and symbolism within the story, as often happens with English essays, as we are talking about what stylistic tools the playwright uses to create those symbols and themes. This is going to be a nuts-and-bolts essay, rather than a narrative exploration essay.

to guide his audience’s responses

All art is about creating a response in the audience in some way – whether that’s an emotional response that causes you to cry at the end of The Fault in Our Stars, or the interminable boredom of the first half of The Good Earth, or the tense fear created through the suspense of not knowing Dracula’s specific movements for most of the novel. So here we’re talking about how the playwright can control what responses his audience experiences – how does he get us to feel that profound sadness and grief that makes us cry rather than the fear that would make us scream? So now our technical discussion has an angle – we’ll only be looking at techniques and tools that help to bring out emotional responses. If an example wants a place in our essay, it has to fit into that criteria.

to the central characters and the action.

This little tail might get overlooked if we’re not careful, but it does bear keeping an eye on. Here we’re refining the criteria for our examples – not just a tool that brings out an emotional response, but one that brings out a response relating to the characters or their actions. We’re talking about character development here, rather than plot points that are entirely out of the characters’ hands. That awesome example you have about the thunderstorm that symbolizes the relationships between the main characters? That should only be included in this essay if it actually shapes our perception of those characters moving forward – if it makes us think about those characters in a different way.

If you have an awesome example in mind that doesn’t seem to fit, take some time with it and see if you can make it fit these criteria with a little love. A word cloud can be helpful for this kind of pre-writing – the thunderstorm I mentioned above, from my Wuthering Heights essay, clarified as the central theme of my response only AFTER quite a bit of turning it around as it related to the other points I was making.

So already we’re starting to see the type of essay we’ll be writing – a very technically-focused piece about the playwright’s craft in character development. We’ll be using one play as our lens to focus this broad topic into something workable, and this is where the last two highlighted portions come in:

Support your argument with specific references to the play.
Do not give a plot summary.

These are both good things to keep in mind as we write, as they often get lost in the shuffle.

Specific examples

We’ll need to have some exact quotes and some summarized examples, but we should be able to point to specific aspects of the play to support our arguments. When pre-writing, wether with a word cloud, outline, or some other method, if it doesn’t have at least one example from the play, discard it!

Do not give a plot summary.

This one is important as a way to let your teacher know that you actually read the prompt. It’s very tempting to start off an essay by explaining the plot – you want the reader to come to the work from the same place you do, after all. Right? Well, actually, in a situation like this, it’s better to assume the reader is familiar with your subject material already. If you were in an English Lit class, the teacher would be, and even in an open-ended prompt like this, you very rarely need to know the detailed ins and outs of the plot to understand the writing techniques you’ll be discussing. All a plot summary does is eat up a paragraph or two of your (probably tight) word or page count, making it harder to fit the actual meat of your essay into the rest of your space.

This point was easy for me to hit because Assassins doesn’t really have a plot in the first place – it’s quite abstract as musicals go. All I gave in the way of summary in my essay was a single sentence to explain the theme of the play – “Assassins, which is based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., is an abstract musical centered around the men and women who, over the years, have killed or tried to kill the President of the United States.” I went on to explain the central theme of the play in a bit more detail, but only because the rest of my essay hinged on articulating how the playwright’s tools ‘guide the audience’s response’ to the central theme as it relates to the characters. Assassins is a very character-driven play in the first place, so that made it a perfect choice for this essay.

And that brings me to another important point – when you’re fortunate enough to be able to choose your own subject material, choose carefully. Pick a play that will support the type of essay you need to write intrinsically, so that you don’t end up fighting with your examples to make them stay on topic. For me, an abstract musical was an obvious choice for this one, since musicals tend to involve more suspension of disbelief for the audience, and the more abstract the staging, the easier it would be to point to the tools used.

So this gives us enough of a sense of what kind of essay we’re writing to begin some pre-writing proper, using any of the techniques we’ve talked about already. For this one, I used some sketchy outlining to get my thoughts in order. And now we need to add one more piece to the puzzle – this one is one that I often add in after I have a basic outline going. You may have noticed that I skipped one sentence of the prompt when I first tackled it above:

You might consider the effect on the audience of things like setting, the use of comparable and contrasting characters, and the characters’ responses to each other.

This type of sentence is VERY important whenever it appears in a prompt. Starting off a sentence with the phrase “You might consider” makes it sound like this is an optional step, something to get you going if you need it, but often this is the teacher’s way of telling you what they’ll be looking for in your paper when grading. It’s always a good idea to try to address as many of these example ideas in your paper as you possibly can – as long as you can find some examples from your source material.

In our case, this means the paper should focus its supporting arguments on three specific playwriting tools: setting, comparing and contrasting characters, and the way the characters respond to each other. When I went to revise my outline, I started with a body paragraph for each of these tools and refined from there. My final paper included a discussion of ‘limbo’ (setting), the use of limbo to show parallel and contrasting aspects of the different characters’ stories without them showing each other (comparable and contrasting characters), and the way the assassins interact with the Balladeer (the way the characters respond to each other). Once these three were addressed, I was free to include any extra examples I wanted – in my case, a paragraph about the importance of direction as a tool and the different audience response caused by making one small directing choice that differed from the script as written.

So there we have it – a pretty decent handle on the type of essay we’re going to write, the angles we’re going to come at it from, and the specific examples we want to include. Finish up your outline, and get writing!

Writing Rundown: Free-Writing Brainstorming for ‘Peering Into an Alien Mirror’

Last week in my Literature Spotlight, I discussed the idea of science-fiction as a reflection of the time period in which it was written. For this week’s Writing Rundown, let’s take a look at my brainstorming process.

As I mentioned in this blog post, there are many ways to brainstorm for a project. For this one, I decided to use a technique I hardly ever use myself: free-writing. Free-writing is a great tool for projects for which you have the beginnings of a lot of ideas bouncing around in your head, but none are quite fleshed out enough for you to contemplate their connections. It generally requires another form of prewriting such as a word cloud or outline to get it into a state that helps you write the essay, but it’s a great place to start.

So, as a brief recap: in freewriting, sometimes called “stream-of-consciousness” writing, you put your pen down on a blank piece of paper and just start writing – and you don’t stop writing for at least ten or fifteen minutes. Jot down everything that comes to mind, trying to stay on topic but not worrying if you stray. The important thing is that the pen should never stop moving – just write down everything that comes into your head. I’ve inserted the results of my freewriting below, transcribed for the web:

Sci-fi is popular because it is a reflection of the time period in which it was written. By reading sci-fi from previous eras we can see into what people of the era was thinking about. Sci-fi from the cold war era is preoccupied w/nuclear annihilation, or it deals with racial tensions like TOS Star Trek. The Expanse series has a female space marine, something that would never happen in sci-fi from the 50’s. Doc Smith in the 20’s wrote about the womenfolk making sandwiches in zero gravity. TOS had a black woman on the bridge and an alien FO. Also deals w/social issues and questions that are at front of people’s minds. Expanse talks about basic support/welfare and not everyone needing to work. Draco Tavern presents little nuggets of question and leaves them for reader to decide opinion about.

As you can see, it’s a bit of a jumbled mess – the tenses are all screwed up, most of the sentences are fragments, and it jumps topics all over the place. But if you look closely, all of the concepts from my essay last week are there. I used my ten minutes of free-writing to tease out all of my thoughts about the topic, as well as get an idea of which works from the genre I wanted to use. You’ll see a few things that didn’t make it into the essay, like the mention of nuclear annihilation – my brain connected that in the moment, but upon re-organizing into an outline, I realized that I was taking that idea mostly from japanese animation and didn’t have any specific works to cite as evidence. So I decided to leave it out.

Speaking of outlines, here’s what the outline I created from that prewriting looks like:

Now, this outline didn’t start this full; this is after a few minutes of adjusting and reorganizing. I realized in creating the outline that I specifically wanted to talk about social issues reflected through the use of aliens and spaceships, so I re-organized the flow of my essay from paragraphs centered around individual works of sci-fi to paragraphs centered around types of social issues represented. In particular, the free-writing helped me realize the connection between the utopian racial ideas within the human race in TOS Star Trek and the tension between the humans and the aliens, which in turn gave me the central idea of the essay – that using aliens to represent “the other” can help throw social issues into stark relief.

And as a little bonus, here’s a picture of my actual physical free-writing page. Check out how scribbly it is – that’s how you know I was writing fast!

Writing Rundown: Word Cloud Brainstorming for A Clockwork Orange

Last week in my Literature Spotlight, I explored the connections between humanity, free will and morality in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. For this week’s Writing Rundown, I thought I’d share with you my brainstorming process.

As I mentioned in this blog post, there are many different ways to brainstorm for a project. For this one, I chose to use a Word Cloud. I chose the Word Cloud because it’s a much more flexible and organic method than going straight for an outline, and I was anticipating this particular topic being tricky to organize. All of the ideas bouncing around in my head were interconnected, and I felt a Word Cloud would help me sort them out and figure out the best way to structure my essay.

Take a look at my finished Word Cloud:

In the center of the page, I began with the phrase “Loss of Free Will.” I knew that was the central key to my current thought process – that the loss of free will was what actually affected the main character’s humanity, far more than any other event in the book.

From there, I began to work outward with a second set of large ideas. My second ring contained four phrases: “Title: Clockwork Orange,” “Loss of Humanity,” “Link between humanity, free will, and morality,” and “Becomes tool of the state.” I knew these were all things I wanted to touch on in my essay, but couldn’t quite figure out yet how to distribute them. All four of these phrases were connected to the main point in the center.

Next came the outlying phrases, where I began looking for supporting evidence for my various big thoughts and jotting down anything that seemed important. Spiraling outward from those four big ideas were a sequence of phrases indicating both concepts I wanted to explore and specific quotations I knew I wanted to use, along with their page numbers for easy reference later. Each of these spirals connected back to its main idea, but for the most part there wasn’t any cross-connection between them at this stage. I went back through and began adding extra connections between some of the ideas to show which things belonged in the same train of thought, and which things shared a causal relationship that I wanted to make sure I touched on. I was beginning to see my paragraphs forming.

But something wasn’t quite right.

I inspected my word cloud further. The title connected to the loss of humanity, which connected to the link between the three ideas. I found I had a little triangle surrounding the idea of that link between humanity, morality, and free will. Even though that phrase was not the original center of my cloud, it had emerged as the glue that held all these thoughts together. If I removed that piece, large parts of the rest of my cloud wouldn’t connect up anymore. That told me that the concept of that link was actually my thesis, more than simply the loss of free will. That phrase became the new center of my cloud, and I re-adjusted my visual conception of the rest of the cloud to surround that point.

I then added in some dividing lines to visually separate the cloud into the points that would become each of my three paragraphs. One involved the title and its connection to the idea of a loss of humanity, a second dealt with Alex becoming a tool of the state after the loss of his free will, and the third involved a discussion of the final chapter and the commentary on morality presented within it.

I now had a pretty clear idea of how to structure my essay. I translated this cloud into a more traditional five-paragraph outline and wrote from there. Of course, all pre-writing should stay flexible throughout the writing process. As I went into my drafting phase, I found myself organizing and re-organizing multiple times, and I referenced my word cloud several times to keep myself on track as the shifts happened. Word Clouds are really handy for topics that are intricately interconnected, or that you think might run the risk of getting tangled up in themselves as you write. I don’t always use one, but this essay really needed it.

Writing Rundown: Three Things Your Spell-Check Won’t Tell You

Computerized spell-check can be a handy time-saver when writing papers, and many students swear by it. However amazing it may be, though, spell-check is still just a computer program, and as such should not be considered a substitute for proofreading with human eyes. As evidence, here are three common mistakes that spell-check won’t catch.

Proper Nouns
Spell-check uses a dictionary to compare the words you type to existing words. Proper nouns, like names of people or places, usually won’t be in the computer’s dictionary, and so the spell-check will flag them as misspelled. This means that when you proofread, you’ll have to ignore the wavy underline under those names. But this can also backfire – what if you happened to misspell that name? The computer will underline it same as before, but your brain is already prepared to ignore underlining on that name so you run the risk of not catching it yourself. This is one reason I advocate actually printing out a hard copy of your paper and proofreading it old-school, with a red pen – you won’t have any spell-check markings to distract you, and you’ll be more likely to catch that misspelled name.

Homophones are words that sound alike but are spelled differently. Common culprits for this category include assent versus ascent, affect versus effect, and which versus witch. The key here is that all of these words are spelled correctly, and your spell-check doesn’t have any way of knowing which one of them you meant. Some programs have a grammar check tool as well, but these programs can’t really catch context-based errors. Take the first example above. Do you mean assent (a statement of agreement) or ascent (a climb up a mountain)? Both are nouns, so their usage in the sentence would be similar. Your grammar check tool has no idea whether you are writing a legal document or a mountaineer’s biography, so as far as the computer is concerned, either one could be correct.

Typos that Convert One Word to Another
I recently read a book that was obviously proofread by a computer rather than a human, and the way I knew that was the presence of many errors of this type. Remember, a computer spell-check is only looking for words that aren’t in its dictionary – so if a typo causes one word to become another, your spell-check won’t catch it. An example from this book was the misspelling of “rib” as “rig.” Rig is a word, so the computer didn’t catch it. For that, you need a pair of human eyes.

The overall theme with these mistakes is the computer’s inability to discern context. Spell-check is there to make sure that you’ve spelled your words correctly, but it has no idea what you’re really trying to say and cannot fix things that don’t involve misspelled words. This is one of the reasons that I advocate students not rely on their spell-check – in much the same way that I encourage math students not to rely on their calculators. The computer doesn’t know the context – you do. Print out your paper, grab a red pen, and read through for errors without the computer around. Asking a friend to proofread your paper is also a good strategy – someone who hasn’t been staring at the same paragraphs for days will be more likely to notice the mistakes that your brain has learned to gloss over.

Writing Rundown: Finding Your “However”

It takes practice to find your writing style, whether it be in fiction, research papers, or analytical essays. The best piece of writing is both grammatically correct and organized, but also contains the essence of the person who’s writing it. When I correct students’ papers, I try to avoid suggesting alternate sentences in their entirety, since a paper written by you shouldn’t sound like one written by me. Even if we are answering the exact same prompt in the exact same way, the tone and character of each paper will be distinct, unique to each of us. Finding your style is a slow process, and generally comes about organically as a result of experience. Write more papers and you will begin to zero in on what makes a paper sing for you.

This is not to say that there aren’t tips and techniques I can give to help you find your writing style. By far one of the most useful techniques in my own experience has been working with what I call “Finding your ‘however’.” The name comes from my sister, who always used to incorporate the word ‘however’ into practically every sentence in her paper, even when it didn’t make sense. It was just a quirk of the way her brain liked to formulate thoughts, so it ended up in her rough drafts a lot because it was in her head while trying to sort out what she wanted to say. I had a similar experience, but in my case it was not ‘however’ but ‘I believe that’. I used to start every sentence in an opinion essay with “I believe that,” since that’s how my brain formulated thoughts. In an opinion piece, though, the idea that these statements are your beliefs is implied – you don’t need to keep telling the reader that. It was hard for me to remember that I could just state my opinions as fact and with confidence, and the reader would understand implicitly.

We all have these little quirks in the way we write, and they’re different for each person. It’s a natural reflection of the way our brains process information. Usually these quirks end up detracting from the strength of the overall paper, throwing the difference between spoken and written English into stark contrast and sounding stilted or affected when read. Catching yourself in the process of falling into a quirk is difficult, though, so my strategy is simply to recognize and acknowledge your little ‘however’. In my case, I recognize the fact that I like to start every sentence with “I believe that,” and that this quirk will need to be dealt with before my paper can be considered finished.

But here’s the key – ignore it when writing your rough draft. It’s easiest to get the information out on paper if you’re not worrying about editing, so just get it all out and don’t censor yourself. On your first round of editing, after you have a completed draft, go through methodically and remove all of those little ‘howevers.’ In my case, when it’s time to edit I start by going through and cutting out every single instance of “I believe that,” adjusting sentences where necessary.

And don’t worry – if you work in this way long enough, your brain will eventually figure out that you don’t need those quirks and you’ll find they stop making their way into your paper in the first place. I hardly ever start sentences with “I believe that” anymore, but I still make a first pass through the paper and check for them anyway. In fact, far from being a detrimental quirk, my little ‘however’ has become a tool that I use to help me generate content. When I’m having trouble articulating a point, I’ll say it to myself starting with “I believe that” – and then simply write the rest of the sentence without those first three words. Find your ‘however’ and keep on top of it, and you’ll be well on your way to writing a great essay.

Writing Rundown: Prewriting Techniques

Prewriting often gets the short end of the stick with students rushing to get that paper written before its due date. Since many teachers don’t require prewriting to be turned in with the paper, many students feel that it’s a corner they can cut to save time and launch straight into writing a first draft. In reality, prewriting is actually a great time-saver, particularly when you don’t exactly know what you’re going to talk about. It helps you to organize your thoughts, as well as make sure your points are clear and your concept isn’t too broad or too narrow. Prewriting is especially helpful in situations where you’re given a very broad prompt – or even no prompt at all (as was the case with my IB World History term paper, whose prompt consisted of ‘Write a paper about something from 20th century world history’!)

Prewriting is usually defined broadly as anything you do before writing your paper, and can take many forms. This blog post will discuss a few of the most common forms and their pros and cons.

The Outline

By far the most common prewriting technique is the Outline. In an outline, you plot out the framework of your paper by first listing the most important or main ideas and then fleshing them out with supporting details. In a well-built, detailed outline, most of the information for the paper will be present, just in sentence fragments or keywords. Outlines are great for making absolutely sure you know where you’re going with your paper before you start, and for keeping you on task during the writing process itself. I generally write an outline before I start writing the draft of any paper. However, it’s not always the ONLY prewriting technique I use. Outlines work just fine on their own when the topic is relatively straightforward, for things like cause-and-effect relationships or comparison-contrast papers. Outlining is a very linear prewriting form, though, and for some people it’s difficult to generate ideas and plans of attack using a linear method (myself included). For us, there are alternate methods.

Clustering (aka “Word Cloud,” aka “Word Net”)

This next technique goes by many names, but the most common are the Clustering technique and the Word Cloud or Word Net. In this technique, you start with one word or concept which you want to be the central focus of your paper. You write that word or concept in the center of a blank piece of paper and draw a circle around it. From there, you begin to free associate, writing down words or concepts that relate to the main word in the areas around it. Each word or concept gets a circle drawn around it, and then gets a line linking it back to the main idea. From each of those related words, more sub-ideas are generated in the same way, written down, and linked to the sub-concept. What makes this technique a favorite of mine is that it works really well for complexly-interconnected concepts. Each time a concept is written down, lines are drawn linking it not just to the main concept, but also to any other related concepts anywhere on the page. This makes it easy to see common threads running through the concept, and to see alternate ways to organize the information. For example, writing my Literature Spotlight on Wuthering Heights I began with a word cloud surrounding the central idea of the title and the idea of “weathering a storm”. As I built the cloud out from that central idea, I found that all of my main points were connected through a single symbol – the lightning striking the house. That symbol started out pretty far down one of the branches of my cloud, but seeing how many of my other points related to it, I decided to make another cloud with that symbol at the center. That second cloud is what eventually became the outline for the essay. Word clouds make it easy to rearrange your information and look for connections beyond the ones you first noticed, and are extremely helpful for spatial/visual learners who think better in geometric or spatial reasoning than in a linear fashion.


Freewriting is the last prewriting technique I’m going to talk about today. Freewriting is not to be confused with launching straight into a first draft – this is a prewriting technique, not a drafting technique. In freewriting, sometimes called “stream-of-consciousness” writing, you put your pen down on a blank piece of paper and just start writing – and you don’t stop writing for at least ten or fifteen minutes. Jot down everything that comes to mind, trying to stay on topic but not worrying if you stray. The important thing is that the pen should never stop moving – just write down everything that comes into your head. This exercise attempts to remove the filter that normally exists in your head – and by giving you the freedom to stray off topic, you get around the brain’s tendency to self-censor and second-guess itself. When the fifteen minutes are up, go back and read over what you wrote. You’ll probably need to synthesize this information into another form of prewriting such as a word cloud or outline before you can use it to write your paper.

The advantage to this kind of prewriting is that you may find yourself writing about aspects of or angles on the topic that you didn’t expect. When done correctly, freewriting can get you very deep into your psyche and tell you things about yourself that you weren’t aware of. For this reason, I find freewriting to be very useful for a specific kind of writing assignment – one that asks for a deep and personal opinion from the writer. Assignments like the admissions essay required by so many colleges, which challenge the applicant to discuss their dreams and goals or their opinions and beliefs, are particularly well-suited to freewriting. That research paper for history class? Not so much.

So next time you sit down to write a paper, give a few of these a shot. It’s always better to be thoroughly organized before you open up that word document, and it’s always easier to write when you know what you’re writing about.