Thursday, November 29, 2012

The pre-writing stage and why every writer needs it

When searching for a prompt on teaching composition, I thought of the few friends I have tutored over the years. One of the main things my friends seemed to struggle with the most was getting their inspiration, getting their start. They would always turn to me and ask, "What should I write about"? After I considered their question, I would suggest using the internet, annotating articles, considering the subjects that they felt passionate about, or just debating with one another on the subject of the paper until a prompt came into being. While I thought myself to be an adequate impromptu tutor, I had yet to pick up the book A Writer’s Reference, or read any articles on composition theory. Still, I was not off to a bad start, as many of the pre-writing tools I mentioned are in Diane Hacker and Nancy Sommers A Writer’s Reference, but there were plenty more that I had not explored. In order to write an efficient and articulate academic paper, it is necessary to try one or many of the pre-writing tools found in Hacker’s, and to remember that writing tools are not rules, they are loose steps intended as stones for you to create your own pathway.
Every writer has their own method, and usually that method works for them. There is no problem in using your own writing method, so long as your method is evolved from established methods. Some writing methods involve writing a first draft the night before the paper is due and riding off the C or even B that is awarded. Notice how pre-writing did not occur in that example, and pre-writing could have made the difference between an average quality paper and a great paper. Even before writing this very paper, I was going to begin without using any pre-writing methods. I was going to commit the ultimate form of hypocrisy by lecturing on the necessity of writing steps without first taking any of them myself. However, I paused before writing this paper, reminding myself to utilize a few of the pre-writing methods outlined in pages 1-64 of A Writer’s Reference.
To start, I re-read parts of Hacker’s and other articles on composition. Next, I thought about what interested me most about the texts I had read. What was in those texts that inspired me to write? After narrowing down my focus, I drafted a thesis. Thus far, the steps I took to in writing this paper are all steps one can find in Hackers, beginning on page 3, titled “Planning”. The planning, or pre-writing stage of writing, is where ideas are hatched, nurtured, and finally given freedom. Though I had my thesis, I was not ready to move on to the writing stage, not at full-blast. What I needed next was a place to put those ideas in neat rows where I could get at them, critique them, and add to them. I decided to write out an informal outline.
What is an informal outline you say, and how does it differ from a formal outline? First, an informal outline is a great way to list your ideas quickly, aligning them so that they make sense to your chosen thesis, whereas Hackers says that “a formal outline may be useful later in the writing process, after you have written your rough draft […to] help you see whether the parts of your essay work together” (12).
The writing tools I used as part of my planning stage are not the only ones available. In fact, Hackers lists a number of pre-writing ideas, such as free-writing, clustering, and asking questions. Many writers scoff at the idea of using pre-writing tools, and most of the time they have never tried them. Pre-writing tools do work, if only to calm the jumble of the many thoughts racing through a person’s mind while writing. A case study in Sondra Perl’s article “Understanding Composing”, talks about the distractible quality that is always present while writing: “My mind leaps from the task at hand to what I need at the vegetable stand for tonight’s soup to the threatening rain outside to ideas voiced in my writing group this morning, but in between ‘distractions’ I hear myself trying out words I might use” (363). Thus, think of pre-writing as a way to muddle through the myriad of thoughts that bombard your brain. From the grocery list to the weather, pre-writing is the glue that brings the important thoughts of writing together in a meaningful way.
It is easy to think of writing as a fluid process, one that begins with pre-writing and ends with revisions, but that is not always the case. Writing is a messy process, even when one follows the loose guidelines set forth by teachers and composition books. Writing is what Sondra Perl believes to be a recursive process. A recursive writing process is one that is far from a continuous process, and as the writer puts words down on paper (either during pre-writing or beyond), he or she is constantly going back to look over their words, re-reading for context and understanding, mentally deciding what needs to written next. Writing as a muddied process is a sentiment echoed by composition theorist Donald M. Murray, in his article “Making Meaning Clear: The Logic of Revision”: “The writer’s meaning rarely arrives by room-service, all neatly laid out on the tray. Meaning is usually discovered and clarified as the writer makes hundreds of small decisions, each on igniting a sequence of consideration and reconsideration” (88). Recursive writing is not wrong, and one does not need to bury the recursive writing habit to write an academic paper. However, to write a great academic paper, it helps to train your brain to use pre-writing tools during that recursive process.
Another way to increase your quality of writing is to harness what Perl calls the ‘felt sense’. The description of felt sense is powerful, because for some, it describes what writing is: "The move [or felt sense] draws on sense experience, and it can be observed if one pays close attention to what happens when writers pause and seem to listen or otherwise react to what is inside of them" (365). Part of what Perl is saying is that all writers experience physical feelings as they are writing, and as they are trying to describe a particular scene, place, or emotion, they should draw on their own inner emotions to fully convey their meaning through prose. In other words, when writers say they have a muse, that muse can be a place or a person, but the way that the writer translates their feelings for that particular muse onto paper is the writing process known as felt sense. Felt sense can be a pre-writing tool because if a writer can learn how to recognize their felt sense, they can take advantage of that to create clear and concise text.
Pre-writing tools are not the necessary evils that they have at times been painted to be, rather they are simply necessary. It is also important to remember that writing is a process full of varied steps that can be utilized in different ways, so long as they are utilized. Writing is a large contradiction to itself, being at once a process that requires certain steps and at the same time, a process that seeks to avoid those steps and create new ones. Academic writing, while different in many ways from fictional writing, is not the large boot that stomps on creative writing as so many fear it is. Rather, one may keep their own tone throughout the body of an academic paper, as long as the paper retains structure, attention to detail, and clarity, all the perks that pre-writing has to offer.

Works Cited
Hacker, Dianne & Sommers, Nancy. A Writer’s Reference. Boston: Bedford/St.Martins, 2011. Print.
Murray, M., Donald. Learning by Teaching. Montclair: Boyton, 1982. Print.
Perl, Sondra. “Understanding Composing”. College Composition and Communication 31.4 (Dec., 1980): 363-69. JSTOR Online Database. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. 


  1. I totally agree that every writer need a pre-writing stage. That way, it would be easy for people to think of thesis topics ideas and formulate thesis statement. Writing any academic paper can be hard, but if you are prepared and equip with the right knowledge and information to do the task.

  2. Yes! A lot of writers (myself included) perceive pre-writing steps as boring or unnecessary, but they can definitely come in handy.