Free-Writing, Pre-Writing, and Re-Writing: Three Stages of Writing Practice
Miriam Corneli (email@example.com)
Often timesnovice writers think, “I have to get this down on paper right the first time.” But if we examine the process of writing, we can see that writing is a skill comprised of several totally different activities. In this article I am going to talk about three of them: pre-writing, free-writing, and rewriting. I’ll add another, “me-writing,” as a type of brainstorming activity.
Free-writing is a daily practice, much like building a muscle by exercising, that encourages fluidity, flexibility, and creativity (Salas, oral communication, 6/2014). It helps build writing strength and in addition gives the writers something to chew on as they go about presenting or sharing their work.
Pre-writing is another sort of activity that could be compared to planning. In planning what to write, we can take ideas from our free-writing; we can craft an outline, or some kind of scaffold, use graphic organizers or writing prompts; we may even listen to music; or use moveable note cards such as index cards that can be physically manipulated and moved into different sequences (much like playing the card game “Solitaire,” different ideas can be put into place and their organization played around with).This technique is very useful for devising a writing outline or a final structure, as it is a mental precursor to a subsequent “cut and paste” that we can do with a computer these days.
And finally, we must think about writing itself, which is an active and sometimes arduous process. Without belaboring the fact, writing is usually better with rewriting, or editing; often, however, this “editing” skill is not something that is overtly fostered and seems to come about randomly as a writer develops his or her “voice,” struggling to clarify what s/he has to say. So in the following paragraphs we are going to look at each area in detail and provide ideas for manipulating our texts – using our hands, pens, paper, tablets, or word processors – to free-write, pre-write, and rewrite our way to success.
In general, free writing –as its name implies– is “free;” that is, we do not prescribe grammatical forms, linguistic rules, or even a topic. In free-writing, the only thing we ask ourselves (or our students) is “to keep the pencil or pen moving across the paper.” If using a keyboard, one should set a timer and write without stopping, backing up, or re-editing. In general, free-writing is most successful if the initial time periods are short; Spencer Salas (oral communication) recommends three or four minutes for beginning practice. I traditionally use five to ten. But it is like any kind of exercise or physical skill practice: the longer we do it, the easier it is to do for lengthier periods of time.
Students are instructed (or we instruct ourselves) to just keep writing, even if it is writing over and over again, “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say!” Eventually some kind of thought breaks free and a new, creative idea will emerge. For second language learners, it is also acceptable to insert L1 (first language) words in order to encourage fluency over accuracy. Topics may be given (see the links below); writing may relate to a particular theme; or it can be a completely topic-less activity.
Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way, recommends a similar approach when she suggests doing “morning pages,” and every day, regardless of mood or inclination, writing three pages about whatever one wants. This serves to “prime the pump” and get mental debris out of the way, as well as give a life to the subconscious urgings that are waiting for self-expression.
In the old days in grade school in the USA our teacher often told us, “write an outline.” I remember the carefully-writtenRoman numerals, capital letters, small Roman numerals and small letters that decorated these carefully enumerated lists. The problem was, it was hard to organize them right off the bat. Now, brain research shows that many people tend to think in a much more associative manner. Thus, a number of useful pre-writing strategies have evolved. These involve mind-mapping, clustering, flow charts, sketches on paper napkins over the lunch table, the aforementioned shuffle-able file cards, bubble charts, and others. In any case, all these systems are ways to utilize the “organizing” property of the mind to connect ideas, and the “associative” qualities of the mind to think of related ideas, and then the winnowing or sifting part of the mind to simply throw away those ideas that don’t work.
From our initial mind-maps or clusters we can then choose to write a more linear and orderly outline. These again can be organized by theme (e.g., five senses: how does it feel? Taste? Smell? Look? Sound?) or by chronological order (what happened first, second, third) or by order of importance (topic sentence? Supporting details?). In the pre-writing phase, though, we don’t have to worry quite so much about getting the order “right” as there will be a chance to work out the kinks later.
Another useful brainstorming, idea generating, or prewriting technique is what I call Me-Writing. This technique uses a completely self-referential set of questions to engender ideas and emotions about any given topic, e.g. Do I like it? How do I feel about it? What does it remind me of? When is the first time I came across this idea/topic? What problems or blockages do I feel about it? How could I solve this problem if I had a magic wand? These and other such questions can be used to get at a different “angle” and see the topic perhaps in a new way. Also, writing about things from an intensely personal eye allows other more objective data or outcomes to arise. Since English academic writing usually tends to be more objective, getting the “me” out of the way can allow that objectivity to happen more easily. On the other hand, the “me” side of writing can establish the motivation to investigate the topic, bring unanticipated insights, and give the writer more pizzazz.
We won’t say much about actually writing in this paragraph, because so many other people have written about that process. But at some point, one has to sit down and write the blasted article, journal piece, blog, research paper, letter to the editor, biography, or romance novel. It has to come out and it has to be finished!
The final finishing process reminds me of artists who are carving a sculpture out of stone. How do we know when it is done? When no more needs to be added, and no more needs to be taken away.The “rewriting” process, below, is what those finishing touches consist of.
Rewriting (Revising, Editing)
Although editing and rewriting are two separate processes, editing naturally is involved in rewriting, so I am lumping them together here. (The assumption is we couldn’t re-write if we hadn’t edited first.) This under-appreciated step of editing one’s own work is crucial and involves several different parts.
- Let the work sit and “mellow” for a bit. This step also allows you to get critical distance and to put on your editor’s cap.
- Read the work over again – and read it out loud. We nowadays can over-rely on spell check. But spell check can’t help us with the difference between rely and relay, modality and morality, college and collage, and so on. Also spell check is no good for rooting out our redundancies, or getting rid of fuzzy ideas and vague pronoun references.
- Reading aloud also helps you establish your own “voice.” If you are working with students, have them read their writing aloud to one another. It creates ownership, authorship, and shared communication.
- Actually reading the work backwards –sentence by sentence(or at least paragraph by paragraph) –from the end is another recommendation by many writers.
- Finally, get someone else to read it over. Ask a friend to help read it out loud and look for redundancies or just plain dumb spots. Hire an editor. Mixed metaphors, stupid spelling mistakes, or poor turns of phrase can ruin an otherwise good piece of writing.
Also at this phase double-check your ideas and general flow. Do things have an ease, a clarity, a coherence about them? Are you and your reader led easily from point to point, or do you feel like you have to struggle to try andunderstand where you are going?
Finally, after you have done all this rereading, checking, and enlisting your friends to lend you their eye, you can get busy with pen and word processor in hand and rewrite! And you may find that this process goes on several times. You may find you have entirely new ideas appearingin the second or third draft. You may throw away the entire first draft and have a different article entirely. But, it is to be hoped, the final copy will be the one that says it all, no more, and no less.
In writing classes I teach, we talk about the 5 C’s of writing: writing should be clear, coherent, concise, cohesive, and comprehensible. We could add other C’s: for example, commanding, complete, crisp, clever, and cogent. How many other words can you think of to describe how your writing would like to be? Let’s not use words like “irritating,” “confusing,” “long-winded,” or “dull.”
In summing up, when I end an article or writing project, Iask myself the following: Have I left anything unclear for the reader? Have I confused the reader in some way? Have I left anything out? Have I said too much or gone off on tangents? If I were the reader, would I have any unanswered questions?
If the answer to all those questions is “no,” then I am done with my writing.
Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way. Penguin Group (USA), 1992.
Salas, Spencer. Personal Communication, June 11, 2014: Language, Literacy, and “Learning Incomes”: Additive Teaching and Learning in Adolescent Classrooms workshop series in Katmandu, Nepal.
Free-writing topics: these and many, many more can be found on the web:
“morning pages” links: (again, oodles of these on the web):
Graphic organizers, mind mapping:
(Ms. Miriam Corneli is currently an English Language Fellow serving in Kathmandu, Nepal. She was most recently teaching English as a Second Language at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and the Santa Fe Community College, New Mexico, USA. Her MA in TESOL is from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She has taught in Nepal, Vietnam, Taiwan, California, Wisconsin, and New Mexico. Her interests are brain-based learning, pronunciation, and the role of positive affect in the classroom.)