Prewriting is one of the most important stages of the writing process, in addition to revision. Unfortunately, many beginning (and some advanced) writers don’t spend enough time on these activities, and so the writing is more difficult than it needs to be.
Prewriting involves all the activities needed to prepare for the first draft, starting with that first flash of a book idea, all the way to a complete outline. The prewriting process (at least as I have experienced it) has several steps, each with a few techniques that make the step easier to get through.
So why not just start typing after that first flash of an idea?
Only in the movies does a writer do that. Remember Chevy Chase in Funny Farm (1988)? He had what he thought was a great idea for a novel. He sat down at the typewriter, typed “Chapter 1” and stared at the typewriter, at a loss for his first sentence. He hadn’t done his prewriting. He finally figured it out and produced (in my view, based on the thickness of the manuscript and his wife’s reaction) a paltry attempt at a novel, more of a novella than anything else.
Chase’s character eventually gives up on the novel and becomes a sports writer. I wonder, as a writer and teacher, whether he gave up because he didn’t understand the writing process, or whether he simply wasn’t cut out as a novelist. He seems happy as a sports writer, so the movie does have a happy ending.
Prewriting is a vital part of the writing process. In approximate sequence within the prewriting process, some of the benefits of prewriting are as follows:
* Prewriting can be a lot of fun. Anything is possible at this point. You have your wonderful book idea, still fuzzy and vague but with great possibilities. Your ideas can be freewheeling, even idiotic. It doesn’t matter. Just keep brainstorming, playing with ideas, collecting resources and notes, doing all the activities needed to finish this stage of the writing process.
The only restriction at this point (unless you place more on yourself) is your need or requirement to stick close to the original vision for the book, but even that restriction is false. Your original idea will rarely match the finished product. I know that’s hard to read, but that’s been my experience. Of course, my books are often better, more complicated than the original idea. The vagueness of the vision allows you to begin work on the idea, so you can create the book you are intended to write.
Detours and weird ideas can often lead to gemstones for your book, whether with the content, organization, or whatever. At this point, your book can go in many directions. Explore them all until you hit upon the one that feels right. “Ah, ha! That’s what I’m going to write.”
2. You can work out the true purpose of the book, playing with alternatives until you find the one that’s right for you and for the reader. What benefits are you looking for as the writer? What benefits are you hoping to give the reader? Make sure your book addresses these purposes.
3. You can find out more about your readers (a.k.a. target market, audience). This exploration is part of your research about your competition. You probably know a lot about them because you were one of them, having been a beginner once yourself. Or you might be aiming at a difference audience, in which case, you’ve got some work to do.
In your exploration of your readers, you can play around with additional audiences you might want to address. Address different age groups, or education levels, or levels of proficiency with the topic. Do you want to write for adults who are beginners in your field, or practitioners? Brainstorm all the possibilities for all these variables. You might find that the alternatives present other book projects you can tackle, once this first book is done. Heck, create an entire industry or franchise out of your book idea, aiming each book at a different audience.
4. You get to plan the book to best meet the needs of your readers. You get to play around with different organizational strategies for the entire book and for each chapter. You get to think about different features for the chapters. You can even play around with cover design.
5. You get to do preliminary research, as much as you need to finish the first draft, or at least as much as you think you need at this point.
If you are passionate about your topic (that’s most important), then doing more reading on the topic should be sheer delight. Remember that eventually you will have to write your own book, so don’t get lost in the research.
Give yourself a time limit for the research, after which you’ll add research questions to your Research Questions List, to be done during revision.
6. You can easily evaluate new ideas that come flooding into your mind (and they will). Does the idea fit your present vision for the book? If you use the idea, will this new idea drastically change the book? Is that change good or bad? If good, where does the idea fit into your present outline or vision for the book?
7. By the end of the process, you’ll have a full outline of the book (if you use my process). With that outline, you’ll be able to see the whole project at a glance. Spread the outline across your desk and examine your creation. With this outline, you’ll be able to detect:
– inadequate organization of the ideas,
– gaps in ideas and content,
– whether you have one book or two
– whether a chapter will become a monster, which needs to be cut down to size right now, before you begin drafting. (This result also happens with drafting, but you’ll deal with that later.)
8. Prewriting allows you to write the first draft more easily because you know what you want to write at each writing session.
9. Prewriting increases your confidence in yourself as a writer and about your book idea. You’ll be able to determine if the project has merit, and if you’ll be able to finish the project and actually write that book.
The one warning about prewriting is that you can become so fascinated by this stage (it really is fun), that you don’t actually move past it to create the first draft, and then on to (oh, no) revision. Writers have a tendency to spend too much time here and never leave.
Allow about 25% of your project’s schedule to do prewriting. This is the time that works for me. If you have extensive research to do (which you shouldn’t, at least not for an early book in your career) then allow more time, say 30 to 35% of the time. But then move on and write the first draft.
Prewriting is the first stage of writing for any nonfiction work, an important stage because it allows your time with the rest of the project to be easier than if you’re stumbling around in the dark.
Good luck with your book.