Introduction to Pre-Writing Strategies
Say you just got a topic for your Social Science class: "Discuss the implications of the greenhouse effect on Canada" (or else you're in a history class and you're asked to write about "Medieval Kings and Law"). This essay will require you to undertake a significant problem-solving task. You could choose one of 3 kinds of approaches to solve this writing problem: 1) use rules, 2) use "trial and error," or 3) use "heuristics."
Rules and "trial and error" are extreme approaches to a writing task. The rules we learn about writing can be too rigid (we want to explore what we think, and worry about punctuation later), while trial and error can be too flexible, and lead to floundering. To approach a writing task you need something in between: we think that's heuristics.
Heuristics are like "rules of thumb"—techniques for solving a writing problem that have a high probability of succeeding. This is the approach taken by expert writers, and we'll show you how to use it in these pages.
We have divided invention heuristics into two branches: unconscious and conscious strategies for generating ideas for an essay:
The unconscious strategies presume that you have knowledge about a subject but it's just below the conscious surface—you need to jog your mind to bring these ideas out. These strategies include free writing, brainstorming, and nutshelling.
The conscious strategies include more systematic ways to look at a topic before you write the essay. They include using journalists' questions, Aristotle's topics, tagmemics, and synectic
As you explore these techniques, choose the ones that work for you. Since no two writers are the same, you decide what works and what doesn't.
Each strategy described here involves responding to a list of questions and suggestions. You could use the copy and paste feature of your computer to copy these from this site into a word processor, to use as a writing template. (Just use your mouse to highlight the list of questions and choose Copy from the Edit menu. Then go into your word processor, click in a file, and choose Paste from the Edit menu.) Or you could print out the page and do your pre-writing on paper—it's up to you.
Invention strategies are more likely to succeed when you have a clear idea of your task. Before you try any of the pre-writing heuristics, we suggest you try the steps we outline in Understand Your Assignment. If you have to use material from readings in your paper, check out our advice on Gathering Ideas from Readings. As well, once you have generated some ideas, you may find some helpful tips in Organizing Your Rough Notes.
All invention strategies—whether conscious or unconscious—present you with a list/flow of ideas that need to be organized and worked into paragraphs. At any time with any of these techniques you can stop using them and "just start writing prose." If you save your text on the computer, you are free to discard, rewrite and trash at will....The best advice we can give is to be adventurous. (It would be too much to say, "Have fun.")
Proceed to Understand Your Assignment