Information Sheet #14

October 4, 1988


"Invention heuristics" and "prewriting strategies" are two jargonistic phrases that composition teachers use for identifying activities that loosen a writer's mind and pen. The goal is to encourage students to play with language and to see writing as fluid, as a process of knowing rather than an unalterable commitment to uncertain ideas.

Too often students perceive writing as an arcane skill to be summoned semiannually in creaky service to obligatory term papers and final exams. The purpose of using part of a class period for prewriting strategies is to familiarize students with the notion of writing as an everyday activity that helps them discover, learn, and record what they know. Because students are so seldom provided guidance in the use of writing as a mode of invention and thinking, many suffer from writer's block, believing they must know everything they're about to say before they can actually write one word. They perceive the act of writing as official and final.

Through class workshops, quick group activities, or occasional independent assignments, a college faculty can introduce students to many common, useful prewriting strategies:

Brainstorming Free Writing Mapping List Making
Outlining Talking Looping Schematizing

Brainstorming and free writing require the writer to record as quickly as possible all associations of a topic, phrase, or idea. Once a text is created, the writer can then use a variety of grouping strategies to organize the information. Manipulating words and phrases, the writer looks for connections, commonalities, likenesses and oppositions. A student can simply list all the words or phrases that seem alike, and then free write on what the likenesses are. The process often creates new kinds of information, perhaps moving from concrete perceptions to abstract and unifying ideas.

Writers can also look over a piece of free writing, pick out key words, and use those words to initiate new short bursts of free writing (the "looping" strategy) or to create schematics (trees or flow charts) that show relationships between the words and ideas. Sometimes, writers can talk out their ideas with a friend or in a peer response group or with a consultant in the Writing Center. In a staff meeting last week, the Coe Writing Center consultants unanimously agreed that their most productive conferences often occur with students before they have done any writing on their papers. Through conversation, students can discover, very early, areas of strength or places where they are likely to be misunderstood. Talking out ideas aloud to peers also introduces student writers, some for the first time, to the importance of an audience.

Students need encouragement to experiment with many invention techniques for daily writing as well as for prewriting on a major assignment. They can learn to see writing as a way to stimulate the thinking process, rather than simply a record of its product. Prewriting strategies are a means of introducing students to the interrelatedness of writing and thinking.

[Information adapted from Writing to Learn: A Handbook for the Mellon Foundation Honors Project Faculty, Summer 1986. Further information about any of these prewriting techniques is available from the Writing Center.]

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Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.