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Mastering the Art of Prewriting

I talk about prewriting with my students a lot but often forget to do it myself when I work. Prewriting sometimes falls away in a busy writing schedule but actually gets the job done faster in the end. It can also help you discover more creative territory if you let it.

One good prewriting tool is freewriting. When people hear “freewriting,” they often picture writing with no particular place to go—in a good way or in a bad way, depending on who’s doing the picturing. I see freewriting as more of a liberating wandering than a negative aimlessness. It must be directionless.You can’t chart any particular course when you set out because the whole point is to get lost. But, paradoxically, perhaps, this getting lost allows you to locate parts of your mind you wouldn’t otherwise find. As Ray Bradbury said, “Don’t think; just write!”

In the nineteenth century “automatic writing” was all the rage in the spiritualist community (a.k.a. those who communed with the dead). What’s so radical is that automatic writing, a close cousin of freewriting, allowed these scribes access to the spirit world. While I can’t promise you such seance-worthy travels, I can guarantee you that if you truly let go, leave the conventional functioning (and censoring) of your mind behind, you will find not ghosts but a ghostly, otherworldly part of your own consciousness that will feed your writing. Let’s just say there’s a reason the poet William Butler Yeats was a practitioner of automatic writing.

Another early adopter of freewriting, Dorothea Brande, recommended its propensity to take one back in time to a child-like state. In her 1934 book Becoming a Writer, she claimed this practice could “transport yourself back to the state of wide-eyed interest that was yours at the age of five.” Later Jack Kerouac claimed he could enter a trance-like state through just this sort of exercise.

Another prewriting technique I teach my students—which fewer have heard of—is mind mapping, wherein you start with an idea and then map out its connections in a tree-like format. This thinking in pictures allows for greater innovation and the ability to approach your idea from a variety of different perspectives. It’s also a great precursor to any outline you may want to write later. When I was younger I viewed outlines as accessories of the less creative, but now I love them. Go figure. Here’s a peek at one of the most innovative essays to come out of the idea of the outline.

Another thinking in pictures approach that isn’t as common in writing (it’s more of a film technique), but which brings beautiful things to the written form, is storyboarding. This is essentially drawing pictures of various “scenes” from your writing-to-be, just as you would do with your film-to-be. Since many of my students are visual thinkers, this is an exercise that often yields exciting written outcomes. Good luck with these techniques and let me know how the writing goes. . . .