Free Writing and Other Prewriting Techniques

by Nynke Passi


Japanese calligrapher Tsuneko KUMAGAI (1893~1986) at work with her cat.

If you have trouble getting started with your writing or if you can’t seem to get your ideas organized effectively, prewriting techniques will help you. These techniques are practical ways to help you get started and generate material (literally, the exercises you do before you write). Always keep in mind that:

1. Your ideas are valuable and need to be communicated to your reader.

2. You need to find the best way to communicate your ideas to your reader.

These are a few useful prewriting techniques. All prewriting you do in this class is part of your journal work. Keep careful track of it!


Jot down every idea you have about your topic. Free-associate; don’t hold back anything. Try to brainstorm for at least ten minutes, and write everything down in a list form. There are various types of list you can create: lists of topics, main theme ideas, details to include, character study details, setting details, examples, arguments, points of comparison or contrast, reasons, memories, etc. You can use lists effectively when you are first brainstorming for ideas. You can also use them as you are fine-tuning ideas. Read through your lists and outline the ideas you think are most useful–then do freewriting on the topics (list items) you outlined.


Before you find a focus for any of your writing work, it helps to just sit down and write. Take out a blank sheet of paper and begin writing for at least ten to fifteen minutes. Write whatever comes to your mind. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Don’t change, correct, or delete anything. Just keep moving your pen with every new thought that randomly comes into your mind. Freewriting is a tool to allow you to connect to the right side of your brain. That is where the magic happens.


In unfocused freewriting, you just put your pen to the paper and let whatever wants to come out, come out. You don’t censor or edit or direct. You can even write: “I don’t know what to write” or doodle, or you can write about something that happened to you at breakfast that morning, a memory you have, whatever happens to pop into your mind. You trace the meanderings of your mind honestly from thought to thought. That is all you do. If you keep going without stopping your pen, you communicate to your mind that you are ready, you are listening. Your mind will be free to respond and speak to you in return. Doing a brief unfocused freewrite every day is a great way to get creative juices flowing and to clear up any of the debris that might be obstructing your creative channels.


Once you have some idea what you may want to write about, you can do a focused freewrite, where you use a specific prompt. As you write, you welcome all thoughts that happen to come, but when you find that you deviate too far from your original prompt or topic, you gently lead your mind back, just as in meditation you go back to the mantra once you’ve become aware that your mind has been engaged with random thoughts. This technique always yields very direct results. Do a focused freewrite for any creative idea you have relating to a possible portfolio project. Don’t start editing and crafting right away. First do a lot of freewriting so that your mind is limber and free. The best work comes from a deep place where you are truly connected to yourself.


Frida Kahlo’s Diary


Many experienced writers keep journals or diaries to help them organize their thoughts, to keep track of ideas and note down things they see or read or hear or experience. The more you record, the more you observe, so keeping a journal will generally make you more observant and help you generate ideas about which to write.


Place your general subject in a circle in the middle of a blank sheet of paper and begin to draw other lines or circles that shoot out from the original topic. Cluster the ideas that seem to go together for at least ten minutes. This type of prewriting allows you to visually see how ideas can go together under each cluster. It may also help you think of broader angles, of connections you had not thought of before. Clustering invariably helps you make connections that aren’t instantly evident. You can’t know all of the connections between your subject and related ideas unless you spin them out visually on the page. Clustering and mapping helps you outline further ideas for listing or freewriting.

This is what it might look like:




You can brainstorm on your own, but brainstorming is most effective in a group, where you can get the feedback of others. It involves offering ideas freely, without fear of criticism, allowing one idea to suggest another and another. By freely associating ideas, you can come up with new solutions for old problems. The trick of brainstorming is to allow the mind to make connections between ideas, no matter how strange the connections may seem at the time. No idea should be discouraged. Sometimes the strangest hunch can lead to the best work.


If you are more visually oriented, you can also doodle a drawing about your topic, and this might give you clues about what to include in your writing. Graphics can also give a very clear sense of the relationship between the wholeness of an idea and its component parts.


Analyzing your audience is one of the steps in the prewriting process. All writers have to know their audience. Knowing your audience will help you find your appropriate subject matter and also the appropriate form and tone to present your subject matter in. For example, if you are writing about your experience being a child, you can choose to tell your story to children or to adults. This will affect the word choice and sentence structure, the tone and style of your writing. You can choose whether you want a catchy and hip voice that would fit well in a glossy magazine, or whether you prefer a subtly powerful erudition that will appeal to the literary magazine market, or whether you want simple but emotional language that might appeal to readers interested in self-help issues, etc. Your audience determines dozens of details about your writing: vocabulary, sentence structure, formality, psychological appeal, organization and approach. If you are writing about a technical subject to an audience of laypersons, you must use a layperson’s vocabulary. If you are writing about a formal subject to an academic audience, your sentence structure should mirror the formality. If you are expressing an opinion to readers who will likely disagree, you should use different appeals and a different organization than you would with readers who will likely agree. If you want to be published in a literary magazine, you must adopt a more sophisticated language than if you publish in a small-town newspaper. Determining audience is one of the first things a writer does when beginning to write a new piece.


Ⓒ John Thomson, Luna Park, Porte Maillot, Paris, 1910’s, children audience