Prewriting – Laying the Foundation for Successful Writing

Prewriting refers to all of the work you do before beginning to write. This article explores the dispositions and prewriting strategies writers employ to write more efficiently and with greater clarity and impact. Case studies, interviews, and observations of writers at work have found that prewriting involves balancing both intuitive, creative activities with critical, analytical strategies. For instance, during prewriting you are wise to listen your 'felt sense' - your embodied awareness of what you want to say. And, during prewriting, you are also wise to engage in more straightforward, cognitive processes such as engaging in outlining, drafting a document planner, or engaging in rhetorical analysis.

What is Prewriting?

Prewriting refers to

  1. all of the work a writer engages in BEFORE BEGINNING TO WRITE
  2. the first stage of the writing process
  3. a liminal space — the space between thinking about working on a project and actually beginning to write.

Writers have many ways of engaging in prewriting, based on their individual preferences and the discourse conventions of their audience. Interviews and case studies of writers @ work have found that during prewriting writers engage in a variety of dispositions and strategies:

  1. During prewriting, writers embrace intellectual openness. They interview stakeholders, consider counterarguments, and review the peer-reviewed literature on the topic
  2. During prewriting, writers adopt a growth mindset. They privilege the believing game over the doubting game.
  3. Writers report they make composing decisions based on their “intuition“, “inner voice,” or “subconscious
    • Some writers believe the subconscious is a source of ideas, creativity and inspiration. Some believe dreams are a window into the subconscious.
  4. According to Sondra Perl (1980), a professor of English and theorist in writing studies, writers begin composing when they have a felt sense of what they want to say
    • “When writers are given a topic, the topic itself evokes a felt sense in them. This topic calls forth images, words, ideas, and vague fuzzy feelings that are anchored in the writer’s body. What is elicited, then, is not solely the product of a mind but of a mind alive in a living, sensing body…..When writers pause, when they go back and repeat key words, what they seem to be doing is waiting, paying attention to what is still vague and unclear. They are looking to their felt experience, and waiting for an image, a word, a phrase to emerge that captures the sense they embody….Usually, when they make the decision to write, it is after they have a dawning awareness that something has clicked, that they have enough of a sense that if they begin with a few words heading in a certain direction, words will continue to come which will allow them to flesh out the sense they have” (Perl 1980, p. 365).
  1. Conversations with Others
    • Writers like to talk over an exigency, a problem, a call to write with trusted friends, peers, and mentors. In college, students like to brainstorm with one another to better understand a writing assignment or the needs of the audience, such as a manager or a client, before deciding to take it on as a writing project
  2. Openness to Discovery
    • In interviews and memoirs, writers and artists report insatiable inquiry. They engage in informal research. They engage in strategic research in order to learn what is known about the topic
      creative play.
  3. Mindset – Meditation
    • Writers may engage in meditation to help slow down. They may need to turn off their phones and computers to reach the state of calmness and focus necessary to begin thinking about a writing project.
  4. Procrastination
    • Writers like to procrastinate. Sometimes writers need to set a call to write aside. They need to let an idea simmer on the back burner. They may sleep on it.
  5. Subconscious
    • Some creative people track and interpret their dreams. They say this helps them interpret their dreams for insights, reoccurring narratives, and solutions to problems they face during waking hours.
  6. Strategic Searching
    • Writers may engage in extensive strategic searching in order to identify the status “conversation” on a particular topic. Writers may freewrite to see where their thoughts lead them.


The terms planning, prewriting, and invention are sometimes used interchangeably, yet they each carry distinct meanings:

  • Prewriting is a subset of planning, focusing more on the initial stages of idea generation, brainstorming, and exploration of thoughts before formal writing begins
  • Planning typically refers to the overall process of organizing ideas and structuring a writing piece, encompassing the selection of topics, determination of purpose, and arrangement of content 
  • Invention is often associated specifically with the creative aspect of prewriting, where writers devise innovative ideas, concepts, and arguments. 

Related Concepts: Document Planner; Intellectual Openness; Mindset; Resilience; Rhetorical Analysis; Self-Regulation & Metacognition


Why Does Prewriting Matter?

  1. Clarifies Initial Thoughts and Ideas
    • Prewriting helps clarify and refine the central theme or argument of the piece.
  2. Stimulates Creativity and Exploration
    • During prewriting, writers have the freedom to explore different angles and perspectives. This creative exploration can lead to more original and engaging content.
  3. Facilitates Research Direction
    • By outlining the main ideas during prewriting, writers can determine what additional research or information is needed, making their research efforts more focused and efficient.
  4. Reduces Writer’s Block
  5. Allows for Better Organization
    • Prewriting helps in structuring thoughts and ideas, leading to a more organized and coherent draft. This organization is crucial for the logical flow of the final piece.
  6. Enhances Understanding of the Audience
  7. Establishes a Foundation for the Draft
    • Prewriting sets a solid foundation for the first draft, ensuring that the writing process starts with a clear direction and purpose.
  8. Promotes Efficient Use of Writing Time
    • With a clear outline or plan from the prewriting stage, the actual writing process becomes more efficient, as the writer has a clear roadmap to follow.
  9. Encourages Reflection and Self-Evaluation
    • Prewriting gives writers a chance to reflect on their topic, assess their knowledge and opinions, and evaluate the potential impact of their writing.

Is Prewriting Always Necessary?

No. Writers differ in how frequently or deeply they engage in prewriting. Some people prefer to jump immediately into composing. They don’t pause to reflect on the rhetorical situation. They don’t want to conduct a literature review. Instead, they want to immediately dive in and spark the creative process by freewriting, visual brainstorming, and other creative heuristics.

In contrast, other writers prefer to engage significant prewriting: they question

  • What’s known about a topic? what’s novel? what knowledge claims are currently being disputed?
  • What does peer-reviewed literature say about the topic?
  • Do I need to engage in empirical research? What methods are expected by the discourse community?
  • What informal, background research needs to be done in order to prepare to write?
  • What’s the best way to organize the document? What common organizational patterns should I use to help the readers interpret the message?

What Is the Difference Between Planning, Prewriting & Invention?

The terms planning, prewriting, and invention may be used used interchangeably because they are such intertwined processes, yet they each carry distinct meanings:

  • Planning typically refers to the overall process of organizing ideas and structuring a writing piece, encompassing the selection of topics, determination of purpose, and arrangement of content. It typically encompasses tools such as Team Charters and usage of project management software. While prewriting and invention may involve more creative and exploratory activities, planning is focused on setting a clear direction and framework for the writing.
  • Prewriting is a subset of planning, focusing more on the initial stages of idea generation, brainstorming, and exploration of thoughts before formal writing begins. Prewriting is more expansive and free-form than planning, allowing for a broader exploration of thoughts and concepts. In comparison to invention, prewriting is less about generating new ideas and more about exploring and organizing existing ideas in preparation for writing.
  • Invention in writing refers to the process of generating new ideas, concepts, or perspectives. Invention is distinct from planning and prewriting in that it is focused primarily on creating something new, rather than organizing or setting objectives for existing ideas.

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