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A Very Good Place to Start

By Lauren Bridgeman


s a consultant at Ouachita Baptist’s Speer Writing Center, I help students with writing issues like brainstorming, revision, and formatting, and one worry that comes up in sessions is that a client does not know where to start. Even though they’ve read the rubric for their assignment and might have an idea, they feel stuck. When an assignment is long, it can be overwhelming, especially when a writer focuses on the final product instead of the process. Right now, I’d like to share with you my first steps when approaching a paper: prewriting.
In the prewriting stage, or the brainstorming stage, I open the notes app on my computer and begin to free write. Free writing is writing without worrying about grammar; when coming up with ideas, writing proper sentences is not my priority. I think about what I liked or hated about a certain author’s works or a selection of readings from the class. Listing topics I have strong feelings about helps me get into the creative mindset and come up with topics that I enjoy writing about. Using bullet points, I write one or two words per work or author. Other times, I recall some themes, ideas, or tropes we discussed in class and type them off the top of my head. Looking at either one of these lists, I pick a couple that are my favorite. These topics act as a starting place for my research.
Research may seem like it is not part of a prewriting stage, but because I haven’t even opened a Word document or decided my thesis, I consider it to be a part of this stage. I open the proper search engines listed on the library website (like Ebscohost, ProQuest, or JSTOR; it can differ for different majors), and enter these topics, along with an author’s name or the title of a work. The list of results pops up, and I scroll through to find certain titles that seem promising or fascinating. Once I’ve opened enough articles, I start skimming. To make skimming easier, I hold down Command F on the keyboard to search for a keyword from my list. I’ll copy quotes or page numbers from those sources onto a new notes tab.
After compiling these sources and ideas, I’ll skim through the “good stuff,” or the quotes I’ve collected from different sources. Reading clippings of multiple sources in one go helps me see what is relevant, similar, different, and unsaid amongst the sources. On the first note page, I use bullet points and write what was similar or different amongst the sources. Or maybe I’ll list what to avoid so that I can bring a new idea to the conversation. Maybe I agree with some writers and disagree with others; maybe I agree with certain ideas of a writer’s work and disagree with the others. Any or all of these things go into bullet pointed lists.
From there, it’s time to come up with a thesis. I like to write a couple of different theses based on the ideas that I liked, agreed with, or disagreed with. Often, I rewrite one thesis several times, without deleting what I’ve previously written. Because I have not deleted these, I can take the good ideas from the half-baked theses and put them together to make the Ultimate Thesis. I might even rewrite that one. Once I have my thesis, I make an outline, and I’m ready to begin the drafting stage.

This process may seem like overkill to you, and maybe it is. However, this helps me thrive in writing papers and gives me places to go when I feel stuck or change course in the middle of writing a paper. Maybe parts of this work for you, and other parts don’t – that’s totally okay! Adapt it for your use. Feel free to add other prewriting strategies that I haven’t mentioned like word-mapping or drawing. I’m not there to judge or correct you. Your teacher isn’t going to grade this part (well, maybe they are if they have a prewriting activity, but likely not). You’re the writer, so make this work the best for your assignment and your major.

I also want to state that I don’t do this in one night. I usually do this over two-three days, about three-four weeks away from the due date. That way, if my thesis needs work, or I run into problems or questions, I have time to email or see professors ahead of time. I may bring up something the professor will mention in class to clear up other students’ confusion. Going to office hours helps professors know your face and see that you care about their class; it might earn you some brownie points in the process.

Though each writer writes differently, the prewriting stage is a part of every writing process. I hope this gives you a place to go when you don’t know where to start with an assignment. Again, please feel free to adapt this for your personal use. Happy (pre)writing!


Lauren Bridgeman is a junior English education major; in the fall of 2021, you can make in-person appointments with her Mondays & Wednesdays 7-8:30 PM and online appointments with her Tuesdays at 8:30 PM and Fridays at 10 AM.


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