Prewriting: Two Ways to Refine Your Core Idea before You Start Typing

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” –Abraham Lincoln

bike  I went out early this morning for an 8-mile bike ride along the Rio Grande. I wanted to exercise before it got too hot, but I also wasn’t ready to write this blog.

I’d done some of my prewriting work last night by researching what other writers have to say about the process. Prewriting is the stage when you generate ideas and then sift through those ideas to decide what your topic will be, as well as the slant on the topic. (Slant = Your take on the topic)

My research revealed what I already knew: the most common ways to prep are to brainstorm, free-write, do research, mind map, follow writing prompts, and outline—or some combination of these.

As I read, my mind was saying, “Blah, blah, blah. Same old thing. I don’t want to write about any of this. It’s too well known.”

I considered dropping the topic, but instead decided to let it percolate until I could get to something fresher. I went to bed and headed out for my bike ride soon after rising. While I rode, I let ideas float up. I asked myself what I really do when I prepare for writing—in addition to the standard approaches (all valid but only a piece of this puzzle).

Getting physical, I realized, is a tactic I never see talked about. Yet I use this tactic nearly every time I write. And I’ve talked with other writers who do similar things, namely: prewriting by not writing for a bit.

The game is played this way: Figure out generally what you have to write about. Poke it some. Brainstorm, jot down ideas, research, etc. And then—walk away. Leave it alone, like a container of meat that you marinate overnight. You don’t do anything with the marinade during the night; you let it work on its own.

When you push too hard at your topic, your thinking about it can get muddled. It’s like taking every herb and spice in your cabinet and throwing them in the marinade, and then trying to discern each flavor. You can’t.

I know a lot of writers who get started on a project and walk away as soon as they’ve laid some groundwork (or when they hit a stumbling block). Methods include: Taking a shower. Gardening. Running. Lifting weights. Cleaning the house. Whatever distracts you and gets the oxygen flowing and blood pumping.

Of course, there is a fine line between rumination and avoidance, so it helps to set a deadline for when you will return to the page. In my case, this morning, all I knew was that I wanted to approach prewriting from a different angle. I hadn’t yet sorted out my slant on the topic.

It came to me in bits and pieces as I flew around tree roots and slogged through the sand. Do any or all of the other methods, sure, but then let your ideas stew. That’s an important part of prewriting that is usually forgotten.

Another piece that is also helpful—and overlooked—is engaging in a feedback loop before you start actually writing. Get feedback between the prewriting and writing phases. Let me unpack this a bit.

Usually when we’re writing something, we create in a vacuum. If you’re working on a major project, however, this can be deadly because you can commit a great deal of time traveling in an unsuitable direction. Who hasn’t driven 20 miles the wrong way only to have to turn around? A waste of time we usually can’t afford when we’re on a deadline.

No one likes rework, and if your prework hasn’t led you to a strong, clear, focused idea, rework is exactly what is ahead of you. (Rework is not the same as revision, by the way.)

When I first started working at The Teaching Company, rework was one of the most common problems. By the time we got to see the 3-tier outlines or scripts that the professors had crafted, they may have spent two or three years researching and writing them. If the team spotted content or structural problems, the professors sometimes had to make significant revisions—and usually in a much shorter period of time. I recall more than one course that had to be started over from scratch. It led to a much better product, but how painful!

As a result, I worked with my content team to develop processes which provided feedback well before a significant amount of writing had occurred. You can do the same thing at your prewriting stage. I think of this approach as being similar to “call-and-response” in music.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, in live performances, a musician will play a phrase or two, and a second musician will play a phrase that is a direct response or commentary on the first. It reacts to it and builds on it. Think of it as an active feedback loop.

When you have gone through the steps of imagining and sorting out the best of your ideas to focus on, then share it (or them) with someone else. This doesn’t have to be someone in your field. Any good, analytical thinker will do—and in some ways is better, because that person won’t make the same assumptions you do about the content.

One approach is to tell this person the main idea(s) you have settled on, and ask, “What do you think, good or bad/go or no go?” If the person responds, “Good, go for it,” then go ahead. (Unless you don’t feel comfortable yourself yet, in which case seek out another partner for feedback.)

If, by contrast, your partner responds, “Bad,” or “No go,” then investigate. What is unclear/uninteresting/confusing to him or her? Try to revise your main idea(s) with that person’s input until you reach a single, solid, clear, and intriguing proposition to build your writing around.

You can also take an approach that mimics “call-and-response” more directly. Tell your partner your main idea(s). Ask her or him to expand, tweak, or provide another idea that the original one prompted. Then take what that person has said, and add onto or change it. You could go on quite a while if you are early in the discovery phase. Or you might find clarity and focus within just a few rounds of this.

The goal is to get to a single idea that will form the core of your writing project. You may then need to do additional prewriting research, or to go ahead with an outline or brainstorming to flesh out the elements of your content.

To recap—walk away from your prewriting efforts and do something physical before you commit to your main idea. Next, get feedback before you start writing. You should then be ready to write from a solid foundation–a single idea that reflects your particular slant on that idea.

What prewriting activities beyond the standard do you use that might help others? I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for joining me in this week’s blog. Tune in next Friday for Issue #10 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” We’ll return to the theme of delivery challenges.

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Headshot tight  About Marcy McDonald

Online Course Producer

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