Prewriting—Generating Ideas

Selecting and Narrowing a Topic

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When you need to write something longer than a text or an email, whether it’s a class assignment, a report for work, or a personal writing task, there’s work to be done before you dive in and begin writing. This phase is sometimes called prewriting (even though some types of prewriting involve actual writing).

Note that even though instructors may describe a writing process as having steps that seem to go in order, writers usually skip back and forth between those steps as they work toward a final draft. While you’re in the early stage of prewriting, you might use freewriting (a technique for generating text that you’ll learn more about in the section titled “Strategies for Getting Started“) but then use that technique again after revising your first draft. When instructors describe writing as “recursive,” this process is what they are talking about. The techniques described for prewriting may come in handy later in your own writing process.

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If you’re working on a class assignment, you may get to select your own topic or a topic may be assigned to you.

If you get to choose your topic, be sure that you understand the kinds of topics that will fit the assignment. For example, if your instructor asks you to write an argument about a local problem in your community, you wouldn’t choose to write about the national debt–that’s not a local problem, but a national one. You might try some of the techniques in this resource, like freewriting, listing, or clustering, to discover topics you are interested in. You might use your library’s online databases to search for interesting topics, especially databases that give pros and cons for current issues.

But even if the instructor assigns the topic, you can find ways to make it your own.

Types of Assignments from Instructors

Most of the time, instructors give specific assignments that relate to the course and perhaps to assigned readings or discussions from class. When you are given a specific topic, be sure that you understand what you have been asked to do. Look for the verbs used in the assignment. Here are some common verbs from writing assignments and what they usually mean:

Summarize: If you are asked to write a summary of something you’ve read, you will be giving the main points and the supporting points from the text. A summary usually does not include your personal opinion.

Respond: When you are asked to respond to a text, you can give your opinion in a variety of ways. You might talk about the quality of the text, connections you made with the text, or whether you agree or disagree with the author’s ideas. You may need to incorporate a little bit of summary so that the reader has enough background to understand your response. The summary might be in the form of a single paragraph after your introduction, it might be a few sentences within your introduction, or it might be incorporated in multiple paragraphs in a sentence or two.

Analyze: An analysis breaks something down into parts in order to understand the whole. See discussions of sentence-level analysis and paragraph analysis in the “Writing about Texts” section.

Synthesize: A synthesis combines two or more ideas into a larger whole. For more on synthesis, see “Drawing Conclusions and Synthesizing New Ideas” in the “Writing about Texts” section.

Compare and contrast: When you are asked to compare and contrast (or sometimes the instructor will just say compare, but mean both), you will be looking at two items and stating how they are alike and how they are different.

Reflect: A reflection asks you to deeply consider something, often on a personal basis. For example, you might be asked to write a personal reflection about your own writing or about your progress during a course. Or you might be asked to reflect on how a particular issue affects you.

Other terms: There are many possible verbs that you might find in an assignment. If you are unsure what the assignment calls for, be sure to ask your instructor.

Picking Your Own Topic When One Isn’t Assigned

For some assignments, you may be able to write about a topic that is personally significant to you. Being able to write about a topic like this can improve your motivation. Be wary, though, of just writing opinion without backing up your ideas with reasons and evidence that your readers will find convincing. If you want to write about a deeply personal topic, be sure that you are willing to share that with others and also consider whether or not your readers want to know that information about you.

One way to narrow your topic is to decide what you DON’T want to write about. What ideas or subtopics could you eliminate?

Using Preliminary Research

Another way to narrow your topic is to do some preliminary research–not the kind of research you would include in an essay, but rather quick online research to inform yourself about the topic. This is one example of when it’s okay to use a simple Google search or use Wikipedia. Once you see what other people are writing about your topic, it can help you see areas that are interesting to you, and it can also help you understand what people, in general, agree on and what is still undecided and needs to be further explored.

Check Your Understanding: Preliminary Research

Want to try some preliminary research? Try searching for these topics in Google and Wikipedia, for general information.

Search for “gravity hill” in Google.

  1. How many of the sources on the first page of results are from Wikipedia?
  2. Where is the gravity hill in South Dakota located?

Search for T. Rex, the band, in Wikipedia.

  1. What later bands and musicians made explicit references to T. Rex?
  2. What is the first source listed in the “References” section at the end of the Wikipedia article?

See the Appendix, Results for the “Check Your Understanding” Activities, for answers.

Using Purpose to Determine Topic

You can also use your purpose for writing to define your topic:

Informative: if your purpose in writing is to inform your readers, what are topics that you already know a lot about? What are some interesting topics that you could easily research?

Persuasive: if your purpose is to persuade readers to think a certain way or to take an action, what are some topics that you feel strongly about? What are some topics that are currently under discussion that you could explore and form an opinion on?

Reflective: if your purpose is to reflect on a personal experience or on your learning process, you can explore your knowledge and experience.

Analytical
: if your purpose is to analyze something (usually a text of some kind), is there an assigned list or a specific text? If you get to choose, what books, essays, poems, films, songs, etc. have you recently been exposed to that you could analyze?

License

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Selecting and Narrowing a Topic by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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