By David Healey
Students often fall into two categories when it comes to their first writing class. One group seems excited about putting pen to paper and says that their problem is “writing too much.” The second group makes a collective groan and says, “I have nothing to write about!” or worse yet, “I can’t stand to write!”
Fortunately, pre-writing strategies can help students in both groups. For the “too much” writer, pre-writing can help to focus on the main topic. For the “too little” writer, these same strategies can help expand his or her thoughts.
My Irish grandmother used to say that a hot cup of tea cools you down on a hot day. I once pointed out that hot tea was supposed to warm you up on a cold day. So which was it?
“A wee bit of both,” she replied. “Let’s just say there’s never a wrong time for a cup of tea.”
Like that cup of tea, pre-writing can help students who are running hot or cold on their writing projects.
The three pre-writing strategies I invite students to try are listing, the bubble method, and the free write.
Students grasp listing fairly quickly when I describe it as the “grocery list” approach. For example, I might jot down chips, salsa, orange juice, bread and peanut butter on my grocery list. If a student is writing her Unit 9 Project as a mentor to someone interested in medical office management, for example, she might take a listing approach to the skills needed for success in that field. It’s a very simple way to brainstorm a writing idea, and thus less time consuming for the eager writer and less daunting for the reluctant writer. In other words, listing is everyone’s cup of tea.
The bubble method works well for the more visual thinkers in class. I encourage them to start with a blank sheet of paper and write their topic idea in the center of the page. Then, begin to jot down related ideas seemingly at random around the page. Eventually, they can circle ideas that are connected and even draw lines to connect bubbles that go together. Again, the bubble method is a great way to get started for some students because it doesn’t even feel like writing. It’s more like thinking out loud on paper.
Finally, there is the freewrite. Many students are already familiar with this method, but I ask them to take it a step further by timing themselves. In just 10 or 15 or 20 minutes, how much can you write about your topic? There’s no need to write “properly” … just put down whatever comes to mind. Usually, a thesis statement is buried somewhere in all those sentences. By extracting that thesis or focus statement, the “too much” writer can really begin to focus her writing.
All of these pre-writing strategies can seem rather theoretical to students, which is why I like to ground my CM107 Unit 3 Live Seminar discussions with real-world examples of how pre-writing is helpful.
For more than 20 years I worked as a newspaper reporter, editor and web editor. One of my jobs was to determine what went on the front page. Often, a reporter would come rushing back from a fire scene and be so excited about describing the flames shooting into the sky, the woman crying on the front lawn as she clutched a little dog, and the ice crackling on the firefighters’ coats.
“Sounds like a great story!” I’d agree. “I’ll save some space on the front page.”
But an hour or two later as the clock churned toward our midnight deadline, the story I would get to edit often began something like this: “Fire swept through a suburban home Monday night as firefighters battled a two-alarm blaze ….” Well, we’ve all read that story a million times. What happened to the excitement, the details, the fact that the reporter was there and smelled the smoke?
In sharing this anecdote, I encourage students to stay excited about their topic for the Unit 9 Project, in which they are asked to write as a mentor. Often, students choose their topic because they know something about it. They have “smelled the smoke” and can’t wait to share the details. An academic essay is very different from a news article, of course, but there is still every reason to engage the reader and use the details and knowledge that got them revved up about the topic in the first place.
Next, I like to guide students through an actual writing project from my newspaper days. The exercise starts with a question: “Does anyone not own a cell phone, or were you ever in a situation where you needed yours and it wasn’t working?”
That gets a lot of discussion going! I then share with students the story of how not that long ago I never bothered to carry my cell phone—simply because I was usually with a reporter (or a wife or daughter!) who had one. Then one night as my son and I were running errands, the alternator went up on my old Volvo. I parked the car and actually found one of the few pay phones still in existence to call my wife to pick us up.
This experience became a newspaper column headlined, “What’s that ringing? It’s not my cell phone!” Using the various pre-writing techniques, I use slides of my actual notebook pages to show students how I developed the experience into a finished column using listing and the bubble method, with a little free writing thrown in. I like to point out that it’s not the greatest column in the world, and I’m not the greatest writer, but these strategies resulted in the published column shown in the slide. For some students, it’s an eye-opener that the printed word one sees in newspapers and online often follows a process just like the one the students are using.
I just love writing. It has been my occupation and solace, artistic expression and even therapy, all my life. I want my students to be excited about writing too.
Almost every writing instructor also has a writing background, often in journalism, poetry, technical writing or fiction. What can you share from your own writing experience not only to show students the practical side of pre-writing strategies, but also to make your own love of writing contagious?
Composition adjunct David Healey wrote this blog post loosely based on his Gen Ed Conference presentation, “Going from 0 to 600 (words): Pre-writing Strategies to put the Pedal to the Metal When It’s Time to Put Pen to Paper.” His new mystery novel “The House That Went Down With The Ship” was recently released by Bella Rosa Books.