Imagine an artist who wants to paint a landscape. She does not sit right down and start smearing colors across a canvas. Before the easel is even unfolded, she might take in her subject from a hillside and then work studies of trees and ponds and boaters in a sketchpad. Later, she could play with a spectrum of brush sizes and shapes to produce various textures on scraps of canvas, and peruse other artists’ takes on a similar scene. Or, if she’s anything like me, she’ll develop an urge to spackle a hole in the wall or scrub the grout in her bathtub, and get right down to it. After all of that, she can sit down to her piece.
A writer can do the same thing.
For the final installment of this miniseries on prewriting that started strangely and bounced back in time, I offer some straightforward advice, including examples of prewriting. You’ll even find it clearly laid out in two numbered lists: How to Prewrite and How Not to Prewrite. You’re welcome!
How to Prewrite: 10 Ideas for Clearing Cobwebs and Preparing Your Ideas
I culled most of these ideas from other writers, teachers, and people I admire. The rest of the items I came up with because they sound useful or have even worked for me.
1. Summarize your topic in no more than ten words. If you can’t, focus it more and try again.
2. Read articles, blogs, books, and anything else you can get your hands on about your topic or in the style you want to use
3. Choose a writing idea or troublesome scene and think about it during a walk or workout
4. Listen to music (try this to start)
5. Talk to a friend about your idea
6. Interview people knowledgeable about the topic – what novelist Anne Lamott calls “calling around”
7. Write down all the silly thoughts and useless phrases floating around in your head (This may sound like it would only serve to pull you off track, but playing around is, for poet and essayist Rebecca McClanahan, “the best way I know to find my way back to the page.”)
8. Say a bothersome line over, changing the phrasing until it sounds right
9. Mess with your prose (even the parts you like), taking what you’ve already written and rewriting it with a new tone or in a different tense
10. Make a general outline of your piece
How Not to Prewrite: Nine Ways to Waylay Yourself When You Could Be Writing
Here are a few things I have tried and decided they were totally useless — until the next time I had to sit down to write. Then they seemed like a good idea again. But they still weren’t.
1. Hit your head against the keyboard
2. Drum your fingers on the keyboard
3. Practice typing on the keyboard with your toes
4. Scrub the grout in your bathtub
5. Call a friend to see what he or she is up to
6. Call a stranger to inquire if his or her refrigerator is running
7. Read articles, blogs, books, and anything else about any topic that pops into your head or that your friends posted about on Facebook
8. Sit still until you can envision your whole piece in your head
9. Make a meticulous outline of your piece
Not all of my prewriting philosophies or suggestions will work for everyone. Fiction writer Gary Ponzo swears by the listening to music idea, while I have never made a breakthrough with my iPod.
Take the ideas that appeal, and maybe one or two that don’t, and see what they can do. Happy writing!
Photo by moi, taken in Vermont in spring 2011.