The Writing Process: Prewriting

The first step for any writing assignment is to prewrite, to get ideas going on paper. It doesn’t matter if students are given a topic or choose their own topic, prewriting will help them past that first hurdle: What do I write about?

I present the following activities in kind of a lecture format. I note the guidelines, but then I have the students practice the prewrite with a topic I give them. Depending on how much time you allow for students to share or discuss, going through all the prewrite activities can take two class periods.

I usually start with the prewrite activity, Brainstorming, because it is something all of us do to some degree.


  • Subject at top​
  • Jot down ideas​
  • Don’t stop until you have run out of ideas

I ask my students to brainstorm all the best birthday gifts they have received over the years, plus to add the year that they received that gift. I do this to show how hard it is to remember things, but then follow that up by pointing out how brainstorming got them thinking about the topic. If you allow them to share their list, you can point out how the memories started to surface as they focused on that topic.

A visual prewrite is Mind Mapping or Clustering, or whatever name you use for this activity. I use the topic of a perfect day and ask them to have two levels completed.

Clustering / Mapping

  • Subject in box/circle​
  • Write ideas around & connect​
  • Don’t evaluate

I like this prewrite because it can help the student organize their thoughts, while providing content that they can use for their essays.

Answering the 5 Ws and How questions is a powerful way to gain information for research based essays. However, it is also good for narrative essays or other personal writing. Not all the questions work for personal writing, but it is still a good activity to get their brains working.

5 Ws and How

  1. Who​
  2. What​
  3. Where
  4. When​
  5. Why​
  6. How

When the writing asks students to be creative, like a narrative essay, using the five senses is an important prewrite activity. I draw a box of popcorn on the whiteboard, then ask them to think of an event where popcorn was available. Then to fill in information that matches that sense. Depending on the skill set of your students, you can ask them to create similes or expand their writing in different ways.

The 5 Senses






Ask ​“What if…”

Using your topic, simply generate unique “What if …” questions. For example, the topic I use in class is “school organization.”​

  • What if schools got rid of grade levels?​
  • What if schools used ACT scores to graduate?​
  • What if teachers were drafted like athletes?

In Stephen King’s book, On Writing, he shares how What-if questions were the inspiration for some of his books.  This prewrite is simple, but can lead students to other questions that generate some good discussions.

The most difficult prewrite is the Freewrite activity.


  • Set a time limit​
  • Start with an idea (one or two words)​
  • Just write​
  • Work through blocks (don’t stop)​
  • Loop (same word, numbers, loop)

I usually set a time limit for 8 minutes. I then ask them to write about a regret or advice they should have followed. Most students will hit a wall and have to loop, but most of them will generate more ideas. Their hands might start to cramp, but that’s OK. The best part of the prewrite is the content the students create in that 8 minutes. For most of them, they have part of their essay written.

Final Thoughts

Prewriting takes only a few minutes. Doing a little work at the beginning can save you time because you don’t waste time staring at a blank screen trying to will an essay into existence.



About jboelhower

I am a husband and a father. I have been in the field of education for over 20 years.
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