Chapter 5: Putting the Pieces Together with a Thesis Statement
- Use prewriting strategies to choose a topic and narrow the focus
If you think that a blank sheet of paper or a blinking cursor on the computer screen is a scary sight, you are not alone. Many writers, students, and employees find that beginning to write can be intimidating. When faced with a blank page, however, experienced writers remind themselves that writing, like other everyday activities, is a process. Every process, from writing to cooking to bike riding to learning to use a new cell phone will get significantly easier with practice.
Just as you need a recipe, ingredients, and proper tools to cook a delicious meal, you also need a plan, resources, and adequate time to create a good written composition. In other words, writing is a process that requires steps and strategies to accomplish your goals.
These are the five steps in the writing process:
- Outlining the structure of ideas
- Writing a rough draft
Effective writing can be simply described as good ideas that are expressed well and arranged in the proper order. This chapter will give you the chance to work on all these important aspects of writing. Although many more prewriting strategies exist, this chapter covers six: using experience and observations, freewriting, asking questions, brainstorming, mapping, and searching the Internet. Using the strategies in this chapter can help you overcome the fear of the blank page and confidently begin the writing process.
Prewriting is the stage of the writing process during which you transfer your abstract thoughts into more concrete ideas in ink on paper (or in type on a computer screen). Although prewriting techniques can be helpful in all stages of the writing process, the following four strategies are best used when initially deciding on a topic:
- Using experience and observations
- Asking questions
At this stage in the writing process, it is okay if you choose a general topic. Later you will learn more prewriting strategies that will narrow the focus of the topic.
Choosing a Topic
In addition to understanding that writing is a process, writers also understand that choosing a good general topic for an assignment is an essential step. Sometimes your instructor will give you an idea to begin an assignment, and other times your instructor will ask you to come up with a topic on your own. A good topic not only covers what an assignment will be about but also fits the assignment’s purpose and its audience.
In this chapter, you will follow a writer named Mariah as she prepares a piece of writing. You will also be planning one of your own. The first important step is for you to tell yourself why you are writing (to inform, to explain, or some other purpose) and for whom you are writing.
H5P: Review Prewriting
Review Your Work to this Point
In this exercise, we’ll review all the work you did in Chapter 4 as you get ready to start drafting your Expository Essay in earnest. Make sure you have all the work you did in Chapter 4 downloaded and handy for you refer back to as we work.
- What purpose did you select (eg. what type of expository essay do you intend to write)? What draws you to this purpose?
- What is the topic you have settled on for this essay, and what do you want to say about it?
- And who is the audience for this essay, and what do you know about them (reflect back on Self-Practice Exercise 4.11 for help with this)?
Using Experience and Observations
When selecting a topic, you may want to consider something that interests you or something based on your own life and personal experiences. Even everyday observations can lead to interesting topics. After writers think about their experiences and observations, they often take notes on paper to better develop their thoughts. These notes help writers discover what they have to say about their topic.
Reading plays a vital role in all the stages of the writing process, but it first figures in the development of ideas and topics. Different kinds of documents can help you choose a topic and also develop that topic. For example, a magazine advertising the latest research on the threat of global warming may catch your eye in the supermarket. The cover may interest you, and you may consider global warming as a topic. Or maybe a novel’s courtroom drama sparks your curiosity of a particular lawsuit or legal controversy.
After you choose a topic, critical reading is essential to the development of a topic. While reading almost any document, you evaluate the author’s point of view by thinking about the main idea and the support. When you judge the author’s argument, you discover more about not only the author’s opinion but also your own. If this step already seems daunting, remember that even the best writers need to use prewriting strategies to generate ideas.
Prewriting strategies depend on your critical reading skills. Reading prewriting exercises (and outlines and drafts later in the writing process) will further develop your topic and ideas. As you continue to follow the writing process, you will see how Mariah uses critical reading skills to assess her own prewriting exercises.
Freewriting is an exercise in which you write freely about any topic for a set amount of time (usually three to five minutes). During the time limit, you may jot down any thoughts that come to mind. Try not to worry about grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Instead, write as quickly as you can without stopping. If you get stuck, just copy the same word or phrase over and over until you come up with a new thought.
Writing often comes easier when you have a personal connection with the topic you have chosen. Remember, to generate ideas in your freewriting, you may also think about readings that you have enjoyed or that have challenged your thinking. Doing this may lead your thoughts in interesting directions.
Quickly recording your thoughts on paper will help you discover what you have to say about a topic. When writing quickly, try not to doubt or question your ideas. Allow yourself to write freely and unselfconsciously. Once you start writing with few limitations, you may find you have more to say than you first realized. Your flow of thoughts can lead you to discover even more ideas about the topic. Freewriting may even lead you to discover another topic that excites you even more.
Look at Mariah’s example. The instructor allowed the members of the class to choose their own topics, and Mariah thought about her experiences as a communications major. She used this freewriting exercise to help her generate more concrete ideas from her own experience.
H5P: Freewriting Practice
We are going to revisit the art of freewriting now. You’re right to note that we already did this at the end of Chapter 4. The more frequently you engage in freewriting about your topic at the early writing stages, the more interesting ideas and arguments you will uncover. Good writing does take time and attention — but this time and attention will make the final draft of your essay come much more easily. So try to stick with it for now.
In this chapter, you will explore a number of prewriting strategies. Some may work for you so well that you use them for every essay assignment you have into the future. Others might not feel like they fit your writing style at all. The purpose of this chapter is to expose you to a range of options as you learn more about your own writing style. So try them all, and keep what fits.
Hopefully, you’ve completed your to-do list from Self-Practice Exercise 4.13. You can use those notes as you work away, so keep them handy, too.
Set a timer for ten minutes and freewrite about your prospective essay topic. If it helps, you can think about things like:
- What draws you to this topic?
- What experience do you have with this topic?
- What are you still wondering about related to your topic?
Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? In everyday situations, you pose these kinds of questions to get information. Who will be my partner for the project? When is the next meeting? Why is my car making that odd noise?
You seek the answers to these questions to gain knowledge, to better understand your daily experiences, and to plan for the future. Asking these types of questions will also help you with the writing process. As you choose your topic, answering these questions can help you revisit the ideas you already have and generate new ways to think about your topic. You may also discover aspects of the topic that are unfamiliar to you and that you would like to learn more about. All these idea-gathering techniques will help you plan for future work on your assignment.
When Mariah reread her freewriting notes, she found she had rambled and her thoughts were disjointed. She realized that the topic that interested her most was the one she started with: the media. She then decided to explore that topic by asking herself questions about it. Her purpose was to refine media into a topic she felt comfortable writing about. To see how asking questions can help you choose a topic, take a look at the following chart in Figure 5.1: Asking Questions that Mariah completed to record her questions and answers. She asked herself the questions that reporters and journalists use to gather information for their stories. The questions are often called the 5WH questions, after their initial letters.
|Who?||I use media. Students, teachers, parents, employers and employees-almost everyone uses media.|
|What?||The media can be a lot of things. Television, radio, e-mail (I think), newspapers, magazines, books.|
|Where?||The media is almost everywhere now. It’s in homes, at work, in cars, even on cell phones!|
|When?||Media has been around for a long time, but seems a lot more important now.|
|When?||Hmm. This is a good question. I don’t know why there is mass media. Maybe we have it because we have the technology now. Or people live far away from their families and they have to stay in touch.|
|How?||Well, edia is possible because of the technology inventions, but I don’t know how they all work!|
H5P: The 5WHsUsing the freewriting you did for Self-Practice Exercise 5.1 as the basis, we’re going to try another pre-writing strategy. Ask yourself the 5WHs: who, what, where, when, why, and how. This can help you address more of the issues worth talking about in your paper, and also help you to identify any gaps for further research.
- WHO is impacted or effected by the topic you have chosen?
- WHAT is your topic — what ideas or concept might be encompassed by it, and what isn’t it?
- WHERE does your topic exist or not exist? What spaces does it occupy? Will geography matter to your argument — either in writing it or in understanding it?
- WHEN is your topic most relevant, and has that changed over time?
- HOW does your topic work? It’s okay if you still have questions — make note of those, too.
Now that you have completed some of the prewriting exercises, you may feel less anxious about starting a paper from scratch. With some ideas down on paper (or saved on a computer), writers are often more comfortable continuing the writing process. After identifying a good general topic, you, too, are ready to continue the process.
More Prewriting Techniques: Narrowing the Focus
The prewriting techniques of freewriting and asking questions helped Mariah think more about her topic. The following additional prewriting strategies would help her (and you) narrow the focus of the topic:
- Idea mapping
- Searching the Internet
Narrowing the focus means breaking up the topic into subtopics, or more specific points. Generating a lot of subtopics helps in selecting the ones that fit the assignment and appeal to the writer and the audience.
After rereading her syllabus, Mariah realized her general topic, mass media, was too broad for her class’s short paper requirement. Three pages would not be enough to cover all the concerns in mass media today. Mariah also realized that although her readers are other communications majors who are interested in the topic, they may want to read a paper about a particular issue in mass media.
Brainstorming is similar to list making. You can make a list on your own or in a group with your classmates. Start with a blank sheet of paper (or a blank computer document) and write your general topic across the top. Underneath your topic, make a list of more specific ideas. Think of your general topic as a broad category and the list items as things that fit into that category. Often you will find that one item can lead to the next, creating a flow of ideas that can help you narrow your focus to a more specific paper topic.
The following is Mariah’s brainstorming list:
From this list, Mariah could narrow her focus to a particular technology under the broad category of mass media.
Writing at Work
Imagine you have to write an email to your current boss explaining your prior work experience, but you do not know where to start. Before you begin the email, you can use the brainstorming technique to generate a list of employers, duties, and responsibilities that fall under the general topic of work experience.
Idea mapping allows you to visualize your ideas on paper using circles, lines, and arrows. This technique is also known as clustering because ideas are broken down and clustered, or grouped together. Many writers like this method because the shapes show how the ideas relate or connect, and writers can find a focused topic from the connections mapped. Using idea mapping, you might discover interesting connections between topics that you had not thought of before.
To create an idea map, start with your general topic in a circle in the centre of a blank sheet of paper. Then write specific ideas around it and use lines or arrows to connect them together. Add and cluster as many ideas as you can think of.
Mariah tried idea mapping in addition to brainstorming. Figure 5.2: Idea Map shows what she created.
Notice Mariah’s largest circle contains her general topic: mass media. Then, the general topic branches into two subtopics written in two smaller circles: television and radio. The subtopic television branches into even more specific topics: cable and DVDs. From there, Mariah drew more circles and wrote more specific ideas: high definition and digital recording from cable and Blu-ray from DVDs. The radio topic led Mariah to draw connections between music, downloads versus CDs, and, finally, piracy.
From this idea map, Mariah saw she could consider narrowing the focus of her mass media topic to the more specific topic of music piracy.
Searching the Internet
Using search engines on the Internet is a good way to see what kinds of websites are available on your topic. Writers use search engines not only to understand more about the topic’s specific issues but also to get better acquainted with their audience.
When you search the Internet, type some key words from your broad topic or words from your narrowed focus into your browser’s search engine (many good general and specialized search engines are available for you to try). Then look over the results for relevant and interesting articles.
Results from an Internet search show writers the following information:
- Who is talking about the topic
- How the topic is being discussed
- What specific points are currently being discussed about the topic
Mariah typed the words music piracy from her idea map into the search engine Google (see Figure 5.3 Useful Search Engine Results).
Note: Not all the results online search engines return will be useful or reliable. Carefully consider the reliability of an online source before selecting a topic based on it. Remember that factual information can be verified in other sources, both online and in print. If you have doubts about any information you find, either do not use it or identify it as potentially unreliable.
The results from Mariah’s search included websites from university publications, personal blogs, online news sources, and a lot of legal cases sponsored by the recording industry. Reading legal jargon made Mariah uncomfortable with the results, so she decided to look further. Reviewing her map, she realized that she was more interested in consumer aspects of mass media, so she refocused her search to media technology and the sometimes confusing array of expensive products that fill electronics stores. Now, Mariah considers a topic on the products that have fed the mass media boom in everyday lives.
H5P: More Pre-Writing Strategies
In this chapter, you’ve leaned about pre-writing strategies like brainstorming, idea mapping, and internet searching. Choose any two of those strategies to use.
If you choose to brainstorm, set your timer for ten minutes and dedicate that time to brainstorming about your topic. Write your general topic first, and then follow with all your ideas about potential related ideas for you to focus on in your essay.
If you choose to idea map, set your timer for ten minutes and dedicate that time to idea mapping about your topic. You’ll need to do this on paper instead of in this space. Write your general topic first, and then follow by visually representing the connections to the potential related ideas for you to focus on in your essay.
If you’re new to idea mapping, please consider using Figure 5.2 as an example for your thinking.
If you choose to internet search, set your timer for ten minutes and dedicate that time to internet searching about your topic. It’s super easy to get distracted here, so consider closing any unrelated tabs or window or applications on your computer. This is a good time to look up any gaps you still have in your thinking. Take notes below about:
- Who is talking about the topic
- How the topic is being discussed
- What specific points are currently being discussed about the topic
And save all your links!
Narrowing the Topic
Let’s take all you’ve learned about your topic and get it narrowed down.
Freewrite for ten minutes about what interests you most about your topic, and think particularly about how you might focus your thinking and argument.
What will you focus on for the topic of this paper? Try to articulate it in one or two sentences.
Prewriting strategies are a vital first step in the writing process. First they help you first choose a broad topic, and then they help you narrow the focus of the topic to a more specific idea. Use Checklist 5.1: Topic Checklist to help you with this step.
Checklist 5.1: Developing a Good Topic
H5P: Pre-Writing Checklist
- Am I interested in this topic?
- Would my audience be interested?
- Do I have prior knowledge or experience with this topic? If so, would I be comfortable exploring this topic and sharing my experiences?
- Do I want to learn more about this topic?
- Is this topic specific?
- Does it fit the length of the assignment?
If you answered no to any of the questions, you need to reframe your topic. Consider re-doing the prewriting exercises or making an appointment with your instructor.
An effective topic ensures that you are ready for the next step. With your narrowed focus in mind, answer the bulleted questions in the checklist for developing a good topic. If you can answer “yes” to all the questions, write your topic on the line below. If you answer “no” to any of the questions, think about another topic or adjust the one you have and try the prewriting strategies again.
- All writers rely on steps and strategies to begin the writing process.
- The steps in the writing process are prewriting, outlining, writing a rough draft, revising, and editing.
- Prewriting is the transfer of ideas from abstract thoughts into words, phrases, and sentences on paper.
- A good topic interests the writer, appeals to the audience, and fits the purpose of the assignment.
- Writers often choose a general topic first and then narrow the focus to a more specific topic.