Five Tips to Writing Success

It is 3:30 pm and Janice Robertson has just asked her twelve-year-old daughter, Emma, to write a two-page essay on the formation of volcanoes. As Janice prepares dinner, she notices Emma staring blankly at the paper. Ten more minutes pass and Emma is still not writing. Well aware of her daughter’s disdain for writing papers, Janice sighs and walks over to the table to offer her assistance and finds Emma doodling flowers in the margin. What can Janice do to encourage her daughter’s inner writer?

Writing is a process that involves five distinct steps: prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. It is important for a writer to work through each of the steps in order to ensure that he has produced a polished, complete piece. The writing process is not always linear. A writer may move back and forth between steps as needed. For example, while your student is revising, he might have to return to the prewriting step to develop and expand his ideas.

Over the next four months, we will examine the five steps of the writing process. This month, we will focus on prewriting and offer tips that will help your writer develop story ideas and concepts.


Prewriting is anything one does before writing a draft of a document. It includes thinking, taking notes, talking to others, brainstorming, outlining, and gathering information. Although prewriting is the first activity one engages in, generating ideas is an activity that occurs throughout the writing process. During prewriting a writer will choose a manageable topic, identify a purpose and audience, draft a sentence that expresses the main idea of piece, gather information about the topic, and begin to organize the information.

How does a writer get ideas?

Unless a specific topic is assigned, it can be a challenge for a writer to select an idea for a particular piece. It is recommended that writers keep a notebook of ideas to use as a reference. As a writer thinks of a possible topic, he can record it in his idea notebook for use in a future piece. Some ideas might come from:

  • magazines/newspapers/periodicals/CD-ROM
  • conduct an interview based on your topic
  • media – radio, tv, internet
  • experiences (vacations, sports, clubs, etc.)
  • film – movies and documentaries
  • music
  • visual art – observing or creating
  • dreams
  • memories
  • discussion and brainstorming
  • responding to literature
  • role playing
  • research
  • imagination

Types of Prewriting
A writer should experiment with several styles of prewriting in order to find one that he is most comfortable. Certain prewriting activities work best for specific types of writing. For example, the prewriting for a report might look very different from the prewriting for a story.


Brainstorming is a quick, informal way of gathering ideas for a writing topic. When brainstorming, a writer lists everything relating to a topic as quickly as possible. This prewriting strategy works best for narrative writing, but is also a good way to gauge the amount of knowledge a writer has about the topic of an expository piece. The writer should not worry about whether the idea will fit in to his piece. The goal of brainstorming is to help the writer gather any and all thoughts on a topic, including facts and feelings about the subject. Though a writer can brainstorm alone, it can be helpful to work with a partner to bounce ideas off of and create a comprehensive list of ideas relating to a topic.

After brainstorming it is recommended that the writer spend some time organizing his list. Group ideas according to subject, theme, or in any way that makes sense to the writer. Each group should be given a label or title. Write a sentence about each group of ideas to organize thoughts for the piece of writing.


Freewriting is similar to brainstorming in that it is a quick method for gathering ideas on a topic. With freewriting, however, the writer generates a lot of information by writing non-stop for a set period of time (perhaps five or ten minutes). During this time, the writer will write down everything on a topic that comes to mind, forcing himself to continue writing even if nothing specific comes to mind. This might mean that the writer will include items that may be of no benefit to the finished product, simply jotting down phrases such as “I need to keep writing,” or “Scribble, scribble, scribble!”

After freewriting is completed, the writer should look back over what was written and highlight the most interesting ideas that apply to his topic. He should then begin all over again, refocusing his thoughts. This will assist with narrowing the topic and isolating important points to include in the piece of writing.


Some writers gather ideas by asking the questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? This is a good way to begin writing a story, an essay, or a research paper. These questions are used to explore the topic that is being written about and determine which information might be needed to write a paper on a certain topic.

Questioning can be used for both fiction and non-fiction writing. When creating a story, a writer might ask himself:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What happened to this character?
  • Where did it happen?
  • When did this event take place?
  • Why did it take place?
  • How did the character deal with the main event or situation?

For a non-fiction piece, such as a report on a current event, the writer may ask himself questions such as:

  • Who is this event impacting most?
  • What is the long term impact of this event?
  • Where did the event take place?
  • When did it occur?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How will all parties involved react because of the event?

It is important to be flexible in developing questions according to the topic that is chosen. There are no right or wrong questions. All questions will help the author to clarify points that are important to his piece of writing.

Shape Planners or Graphic Organizers
A graphic organizer (shape planner) is a visual tool used to construct knowledge and organize written information. Using a graphic organizer or shape planner is an excellent way to organize all four types of writing (narrative, expository, descriptive, and persuasive). There are many types of graphic organizers including webs, Venn diagrams, outlines, flow charts, tree diagrams, story maps, and time lines.

The process of using information to create a graphic map helps the writer better understand his chosen topic. To create the graphic organizer, the writer must determine the relationships between the items within a subject that have been selected for inclusion in the written piece and examine the meanings of each of them. While creating the graphic organizer, the writer must determine which parts of the material are the most important and should be focused upon and where each item should be placed on the organizer.

Graphic organizers can help the writer develop ideas by visually noting his thoughts, lending some clarity and focus to the chosen topic. Organizers can be drawn by hand or printed from a variety of resources available on the Internet.

View samples of graphic organizers.

Prewriting is a critical step in the writing process. During this step, writers generate ideas, evaluate a topic, and plan how to use this information to successfully create a piece of writing. Next month, we will continue our series on writing by focusing on drafting and editing.

If you would like additional information on the prewriting process, visit the links below:

MIT Writing and Communication Center
ABC’s of Writing Prewriting Process
Teaching Writing: Prewriting Process
University of Kansas Writing Center Prewriting Strategies
The OWL at Purdue: Prewriting (Invention)