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Kyle Cushman

Writing Before Writing: Coaching Students to Play and Plan

By Kyle Cushman, Vermont College of Union Institute and University

Pre-writing (also called "planning" or "exploration") is a stage of the writing process that is well-known to most English teachers. It is less familiar, perhaps, to faculty members from other disciplines. Pre-writing activities, such as brainstorming, can help students to figure out what they want to say before they sit down to the daunting task of writing an essay. The idea is to first do some writing in a "no stress, get it all down as fast as you can before you can stop to edit yourself" kind of fashion. No pressure, no punctuation concerns, no grammar worries, no "Am I doing this right?" types of questions. The goal of such pre-writing is discovery. Students need to discover a focus, what they care about, what they know, what they still need to find out, what they agree or disagree with, and how prior knowledge connects to new knowledge. Unfortunately, though faculty and learning support staff usually know the benefits of pre-writing, many students do not engage in pre-writing on a regular basis to prepare for writing assignments.

Practice what you preach

Although I am a writer and an academic support specialist, when I sat down to write this article, my first inclination was to jump right into the first draft. Then I said, "Wait a minute! I should practice what I preach! How can I teach students about pre-writing when I don't do it myself?" It's important that, as learning coaches, we develop an awareness of our own process for writing.

It's not that I never explore before I write. When I think about it, I realize that I use pre-writing techniques when I write poetry, fiction, or creative non-fiction. When I am taking a course, I might pre-write to prepare for an upcoming assignment. But for work? Not usually. But why not? So before I wrote this article I first drew a web. I put the words "adrift-discovery" in a circle in the center of a blank page. Then I let my mind free associate ideas about pre-writing until the page was full. After that, I organized the ideas from the web in a more linear, outline-type fashion. And voila! This essay practically wrote itself.

Fostering regular pre-writing practice

So why don't students use pre-writing techniques on a regular basis? In my work with students I find that many simply don't know what pre-writing is or how to do it. Or, if they do know about pre-writing, they see it as more work, an activity for which they don't have enough time.

Learning support coaches can encourage students to develop a habit of pre-writing in the following ways:

  1. Have handouts that show examples of different ways to pre-write including,

    • Freewriting-writing ideas in paragraph form quickly, without stopping to edit spelling or grammar, or to cross out ideas. Usually this is a timed exercise (10 minutes).

    • Graphic Organizers-webs, flow charts, Venn diagrams. Here is a great website that has examples of just about every graphic organizer you could think of.
    • Brainstorming-jotting down ideas in list fashion, again very quickly.

  2. Emphasize that pre-writing is simply "playing" with ideas without the pressure to write perfectly and correctly.

  3. Share some of your own pre-writing; talk about your process.

  4. Be sure students understand that pre-writing actually saves time by:

    • Bypassing the dread of getting started

    • Removing expectations

    • Lowering stress

    • Getting ideas flowing

    • Narrowing in on focus

    • Avoiding the first draft that is "adrift with no direction"
  5. During one-to-one coaching sessions, have students play with some different pre-writing techniques. Talk about what comes up and how the techniques worked to elicit ideas.

  6. Have students go home and try three different techniques and then bring the results to the next session.

  7. Be sure students know there is no one correct way to pre-write, that they will need to experiment until they find the way that works best for them.

What happens next?

Even if students try pre-writing, they often don't know what to do with the results. In a tutoring session, coaches can look over pre-writing with a student and discuss what came up on the page. Show students how to underline surprising ideas, to use circles or stars to draw attention to details that they would want to use in an essay. Talk with students about next steps, such as reorganizing the ideas from a web into a more linear flow chart that they might use as a guide for an essay, or copying over two or three poignant words onto a new blank page and doing some more pre-writing, or circling a main idea and trying to write three to five introductory paragraphs based on the main idea. The point is to show students ways to use their pre-writing productively.

After experimenting with pre-writing on a regular basis and developing a solid understanding of how to use the ideas that come up, students should be well on their way to becoming confident essay writers. Even if first drafts are still "adrift with no direction," they will be far less adrift than if no pre-writing was done. And first drafts that wind in different directions are still okay! It's all a part of the writing process, the process of discovery. However, we'll tackle the topic of first drafts another day…

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