Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Right Prewrite

      Whether or not a writer should do prewriting before drafting is a question that can be debated.  I'm not going to debate it here.  At least not today.  But if a writer decides to prewrite (or is forced to by mean English teachers like me), then the writer will benefit from knowing what kind of prewriting works best for his or her own needs, style and / or personality.

     There are many ways to prewrite.  As a writer, my perspective is as long as the prewriting is helping serve its purpose (to generate ideas and help the writer focus and organize), then I say: do what works for you.  That's what I say as a writer to other writers.  As a teacher speaking to students, I say, "Here are three types of prewriting.  Know the name of each.  Know how to do each kind.  Use one of them in your writing process.  Attach the prewriting to your assignment or you will have points deducted from your final score."  (Did I mention that I was mean?)  Now notice, even though I am villainous teacher who makes my students not only go through a process in order to write a paper, but makes them show their work (I learned that from the even more heinous math teachers), I give the students a choice of three kinds of prewriting. They can choose to brainstorm, do a concept map or do freewriting. Generally, the only time I make them use a specific type is the first time I introduce the students to the topic and make them practice each kind.  The rest of the time I just say, "Do prewriting," and they know (or learn) that I mean one of the three we've discussed in class.

     I give my students a choice because some types of prewriting work better for some students than for others.  For example, concept mapping (or clustering or webbing, depending on the textbook) is rather organized.  It involves connecting related ideas.  The writer puts the main topic in the center of the page, then adds subtopics to it and then writes subtopics of subtopics.  These are connected by relationship.  If, for instance, I am doing a concept map about Valentine's Day Parties I would put that topic in the middle then add the subtopic food below the main topic.  Under food, I might write candy, then under candy, I might write chocolate, Sweet Tarts and strawberries. Words such as balloons or napkins would be inappropriate here.  I would need a different subtopic thread, maybe decorations. And that's where the trouble arises for some students. Concept maps require logic and organization.  For some writers, that can stifle creativity.  For others, concept maps are simply intimidating.  The writers are afraid of putting the wrong word in the wrong place.  They get stuck in worrying about that and BOOM they get writer's block.  This type of prewriting, then is no help to those writers in regards to generating ideas.  Brainstorming, on the other hand, may work wonderfully for them since it requires no organization at all.  It's simply listing words, phrases or ideas as they come to mind.  This frees some writers from perfection paralysis.

     The third type of prewriting that I teach my students is freewriting.  I think it's a great way to deal with writer's block because it stresses that perfection is not required.  The "free" part is that the writer does not have to worry about grammar, correct spelling, correct usage or even the right word.  The writer doesn't even need to use complete sentences.  There are just a couple of rules:  1) Write for a specific amount of time, say fifteen minutes and 2) Once you start writing, you do not stop--at all, for anything--until the time is up.  If you can't think what to write next, you write "I don't know what to write now," or "La-di-da-dee-da, who who" or whatever just so long as you keep writing.  Because this involves timed, non-stop writing, the result is rather messy and definitely disorganized.  I have had students hand in beautifully written papers that they have labelled "Freewriting," demonstrating to me that they do not have a clue what freewriting actually is.

     Today, in class, a student did exactly that.  The students were supposed to have done prewriting and a rough draft for a paper assignment that will be completed next week.  I gave them time to get together with a peer in order to get feedback on their rough drafts.  During this time, one of my students, a wonderful and intelligent woman, brought her paper to me to ask me to check something.  As I did, I noticed that there was nothing resembling prewriting among the papers she handed to me.  I asked, "Where is your prewriting?"  She pointed to a beautifully neat-looking draft and said, "It's there."  I said, "That's not prewriting; it looks like a rough draft."  She told me it was freewriting.  Now, this is early in the semester, so I still have a good deal of patience with students who do not understand yet the difference between drafting and prewriting. So I re-explained what freewriting is and wrote a quick example to show her how messy freewriting would be.  She told me that she can't stand mess, so she has to do her "freewriting" very slowly, printing carefully and correcting all of her mistakes.  Well, that completely takes the "free" out of freewriting.  Ultimately, I banned her from doing freewriting as it is a type of prewriting that, when done correctly, goes against her personality.  I recommended that she try doing concept mapping.  With it, she could organize her thoughts, be neat and write as slowly and carefully as she liked.

     So when it comes to prewriting, remember it's a tool.  The tool has a purpose: to help the writer generate ideas and narrow them into a focused writing goal.  Choose an instrument that can accomplish that purpose and use the one that is best suited for you.  For myself, I sometimes brainstorm ideas on paper, but often, I just start thinking of ideas and writing drafts in my head while I'm driving.  But I don't have to have to hand my writing into a picky and demanding English teacher.  Isn't life grand!