Prewriting And Freewriting

A study by Steve Erickson, Daniel (Choonie) Lee, Christian Salvatierra, and Esme Cribb
24 May 2013


As engineering students in a humanities class, itself inextricably tied to the sciences, we wanted to explore how our peers use prewriting and freewriting as tools to organize their thoughts, structure their writing, and, ultimately, improve the end product. We hoped to examine how students in a traditionally logic-based field applied this sort of thinking to planning and preliminary work in a very unscientific field, using the genre of the argumentative essay. In order to do so, we gave four students the same essay prompt and separated them into two groups, one of which was directed through a five-minute freewrite and the other of which was not. Both were then given thirty minutes to write an essay in response to the prompt. The resulting essays were then analyzed using a rubric and a points system to evaluate how well each writer organized and structured their paper and developed their ideas, as well as noting the technical correctness of each. Said analysis showed that papers written with the earlier development made possible by prewriting and freewriting demonstrated more fluid transitions and a more easily-followed progression of ideas, and according to a survey taken after the fact writers who did not freewrite, besides having weaker writing, also felt less confident in the final product. This shows that while prewriting and freewriting may not solve everything – for example, they had no notable impact on the technical correctness of the essays – they are still invaluable techniques for organizing one's ideas and developing them in a logical and readable manner.


As engineering students, we tend to have a set way of approaching a problem – we state a hypothesis, apply the scientific method, and rinse and repeat, with varying levels of success. This structure may leak out around the edges into our non-professional lives; we tend to be equally brusque when it comes to personal dilemmas (what restaurant serves the best crème brûlée? Pick one, test it, and if you don't succeed, repeat from step one). This sort of trial-and-error approach, while not always necessarily the most efficient or effective way of solving a problem, is one that is so deeply ingrained into our culture and society that anything that cannot be simplified using this approach is considered trivial, and any other approach is considered unreliable. While not ideal, this would at least be a non-contradictory approach if it were not for the intersections of the reliable (science) and the unreliable (humanities) when scientific discoveries must be shared through publications. When scientists sit down to compile their research and, hopefully, make it accessible to others, the scientific method is no longer the best way of working through difficulties. There are superficial parallels – a thesis statement, like a hypothesis, is what you are trying to prove – but the process of writing is very different. The writer should not pick a thesis statement, try to prove it, and then change the thesis statement until it fits the evidence they have; while the scientific method is predicated upon explaining a phenomenon, argumentative writing is done with the purpose of proving a point. If a scientist were to, more or less, stand by their hypothesis, and instead change the experiment to suit it, then the two processes would be more analogous, but alas.

As it stands, though, just as there are established processes for conducting scientific research, there are similarly established processes for writing, whether the material being produced is an argumentative essay or a research report or a scientific article. One of the most universal tools used to organize one's ideas and structure one's work is the process of freewriting, particularly as prewriting, or preliminary writing (brainstorming, outlining, listing, and so forth) before the writer begins to work on the actual text of the formal piece for which the preliminary writing is preparation.


A prompt was chosen that all subjects would be able to relate to – they were asked to discuss their experiences with technology in the classroom and compare and contrast such augmented classrooms with more traditional, technology-free learning environments. Subjects were all given thirty minutes to write an essay describing their experiences and position on the matter. Two of the subjects were also given five minutes prior to writing the essay to do a guided freewrite, during which they were given the general details of the prompt and several guiding questions, such as enquiries about what types of technology they had encountered in an academic setting. The third subject waited outside the room for those five minutes to avoid any possible additional planning they could have done by being given the same information as the subjects taking part in the prewriting session. All writing was done longhand on looseleaf paper. After the five-minute prewriting period, the notes that the subjects had written were removed in order to examine the cognitive effects of prewriting, as opposed to subjects' ability to pull ideas from a previously written list. All subjects then wrote the essay simultaneously, mostly finishing before the time limit was reached, and were dismissed.

A survey was then sent to the participants, asking:

  • how they felt about their answers
  • whether they felt the freewriting/prewriting session had been beneficial
  • whether they felt they could have benefited from additional time
  • whether they were confident that they had written a good essay, and why or why not

These essays were then graded according to organization of ideas, readability, logical progression of thoughts, and technical correctness by every person in the group. Potential problems with this methodology included the small sample size, which lent itself more to a case study format than any sort of general analysis.

Results and Discussion

Of the essays written after a prewriting session, both had a stronger traditional structure – they opened with an introduction that provided background information about traditional learning environments, as well as technology and its potential uses in academia. In comparison, the essay written without freewriting has a weak introduction, which doesn't even clarify the subject until the third or fourth sentence in, and does not fully develop the ideas fundamental to a basic understanding of the prompt.

The two subjects who took part in the prewriting trial, who will be designated B and P for the purposes of this explanation, mainly differed in technical skill, as B had most errors in sentence structure and word choice (admittedly a rather arbitrary field at best, in the case of the latter). P focused on new developments in classroom technology, meaning that her essay was slightly unbalanced in favor of exposition on the “modern” classroom, but had far fewer technical errors and was very readable. W, on the other hand, who did not participate in the freewrite/prewriting, lacked separation of ideas; his essay was the infamous “wall of text”, without paragraph breaks. At one point it looked like he had a topic sentence that could have led to better organization and segmentation of the subject matter, but he quickly abandoned any such structuring and continued on his merry way. Clearly structure is something that benefits from an opportunity to consider the ideas that one is going to use in one's argument, and to separate them out into categories and subcategories in order to make sense of them.

This is of course a preliminary to another important aspect of paper writing – idea development. Once ideas have been organized, they must be expanded and supported using evidence (in this case, most likely anecdotal and personal). B, who did participate in the freewriting prewriting exercise, suffered from a similar bulk categorization to that W displayed in his wall of text, but to a lesser degree – she wrote a three-paragraph essay, therefore lumping all the subject matter into one body paragraph. She made up for this lack of differentiation, though, with a definite topic sentence, and then switches back and forth from subject to subject to discuss advantages and disadvantages. While this sort of see-sawing approach does not lend itself to making her stance clear, it does demonstrate a clear progression of ideas, and a consideration of the prompt from multiple angles.

P, on the other hand, has two distinct body paragraphs, in which she first establishes the differences between a modern and a traditional classroom and then discusses their respective advantages and disadvantages. She demonstrates a good use of transition phrases, such as “in addition”, as well as strong topic sentences – “One way technology enhances learning is through the use of course websites” – when she goes into the particulars of an example she provides. Besides presenting general ideas, she goes into specific examples, such as the use of Microsoft Powerpoint in the modern classroom, showing a clear progression from general ideas about what has changed to more specific details about how it is used and whether or not it is a change for the better.

W's essay, besides its organizational problems, also demonstrates a good use of transitions. Rather than use specific topic sentences, which would allow him to better break down concepts, he used a general overarching opening sentence about equipment and software as used in the modern classroom in order to generate examples. Such an establishing line is perhaps the predecessor, in terms of sophistication, to narrowing down one's focus and therefore breaking up one's response into subsections. That sort of general statement was addressed by the other test subjects during the freewrite, allowing them to further categorize their ideas and support them with more specific evidence. As summarized in our preliminary findings, “Good ideas are there, but organization and few grammar issues make it difficult to follow at all times”. W's paper lacked sufficient structure to make it feasible, let alone enjoyable, to read.

Our efforts to discern a difference in the technical correctness of the essays based on prewriting was fruitless, sadly, as it appeared to have no bearing on how much copy-editing any of the essays would have required.

Clearly prewriting is an important step to work out some writing issues that otherwise make their way into the final product; brainstorming, as one of our subjects did, allowed them to pick out specific examples and separate them into body paragraphs for definition and then evaluation, while the process of organizing one's ideas in general is important in order to decide what deserves prioritization and further development and what may instead be left as is and used to support ideas categorized as the former. It allows for avoidance of the kind of generalization that leads to a wall of text, and lends itself to more complex structures within an essay, whether they involve the sort of balancing act of comparing advantages and disadvantages of certain aspects of a greater whole or if those structures are based around explaining a premise before making a value judgment about it. While the effectiveness of this process differs from person to person, based on their individual writing process, level of technical skill, and knowledge about the subject around which the prompt is based, it is safe to generalize and say that prewriting and freewriting are worth the time investment, given that they prevent fundamental errors that would be incredibly difficult to fix later on in the revision process.


As writers, we are often all too ready to trust in our own talent (or at least what we perceive as such) and dismiss the need for some sort of idea-gathering process, or preliminary preparation, before we dive headfirst into working on what will be our final project. It is the same impulse that makes drafting such a difficult process, particularly with regard to revision – partly borne of egotism, of course, and a desire to believe ourselves flawless and impossible to improve in the best possible sense, but it is also driven by doubt that such preparation and planning is ultimately fruitless and something that can be done later in the process. Given our small sample size, we are hesitant to say that this definitively disproves that belief, but on the other hand our extremely detailed examination and analysis of the resulting compositions allows us to say that in our experience prewriting and freewriting can only help, both in the long run and with immediate results as regards picking up someone's assignment and inwardly sighing at the realization that it completely lacks paragraph breaks. Even five minutes of prewriting had a marked effect on the readability, development, and structure of a relatively informal, relatively personal essay, a format which generally plays fairly fast and loose with all of the above, and yet which showed definite improvements for the time spent beforehand gathering one's thoughts. Those five minutes beforehand translate to a great deal of agony and revision later on, if omitted; our completely unprofessional recommendation is to “suck it up and do your prewriting”. After all, revision hurts more.

Works Cited

Perl, Sondra. “The Composing Processes of Unskilled College Writers.” Research in the
Teaching of English, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Dec., 1979) pp.317-336. National Council of
Teachers of English. «»

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