Skip to main content

Help Students Generate Ideas Through Prewriting

Learn how to model a range of prewriting techniques and introduce several mnemonics to help students organize their writing.

On this page:


Students can and should customize the writing process to suit their own style, but in a writing course, introducing students to various options helps expand their repertoire. In the interest of true understanding, you should introduce the strategies below, model them, and then help students to practice. After a few practice sessions, you might suggest to students that they pick one of these strategies to use on their next prewriting task.


Writers, especially struggling writers, are often discouraged about the quality of their writing even before they put anything on paper. This attitude keeps them from the fluid, almost unconscious act of putting words on paper that is so important to many writing tasks. Writers often write to find out what they think, not just to transcribe what they know they think. Because free-writing requires that students write without monitoring their thoughts, without doubting themselves, they are “free” to explore words, phrases, and ideas that they might never access in a more constrained context.

In a free write, students are asked to write uninterrupted for a period of time. This period should be short initially (maybe 5 minutes) and can gradually increase over time as students become more comfortable. Students put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and write with as little monitoring as possible. As students are learning to free-write, you will want to ask them to keep their writing going at any cost. If a student is stuck, he or she can write the last word repeatedly until new words come. Free-writing done in preparation for a particular assignment or writing task might start with some focus — maybe a word or two at the top of a page — or it may be entirely open.

Following the free-write, students take a minute, then read their writing. If they are surprised at what they’ve written, they have really mastered this technique. Sometimes they find a seed of an idea that they may want to pursue; other times they find nothing worth pursuing and move on to another free write or another prewriting technique. With practice, free-writing becomes more and more natural for students.

Students will likely need significant scaffolding to see this kind of writing as generative. Part of your teaching will be helping them to mine their free-writing for kernels that have promise. Help them analyze their own free-writing without preconceptions about what it does or does not have.


Brainstorming is like free-writing: The goal is to take away the barriers that keep people from thinking creatively. This technique relies on either verbal or written lists of components — students create lists of words or ideas related to a topic, then choose the best ideas to use in their writing.

Juniors beginning a paper on responsibilities and rights generated the following list of topics while brainstorming ideas:

MoneyFreedom Family SpeedingWith money comes rights Age
EducationFriendshipsParentsFreeloadingVotingThe Constitution

Their teacher recorded their responses on the whiteboard and asked students to select a few to put on paper in front of them. From the larger list, they could narrow or add items if they chose to do so. Like free-writing, brainstorming sometimes yields great ideas and sometimes does not.


Prewriting does not always involve words. Images can also spur thinking. You can model for students how pictures can spur thought. Put a large piece of chart paper on the board and begin to doodle, draw, web — whatever comes. Visual learners may feel more comfortable thinking on paper with images rather than words. Imaging can be done like free-writing — very fast or more slowly.


We are wired to tell stories; many cultures have rich oral traditions that rely on verbally transferred information. Tapping into that skill can help students to improve both their oral and written literacy skills. Some teachers take out small tape players and ask students who like to talk more than they like to write to speak into them. Students can then replay the recording and try to note the good ideas that were once verbally fleeting. This is constructing meaning in much the same way that writers do and can be used as a transition to more conventional writing.

Writer's Notebooks

One writerly quality is the ability to look around, to notice, to inspect. Writer’s notebooks are both places for recording these inspections and tools to encourage the activity. They can be used as journals, as observation tools, or as a combination of many kinds of writing. Some teachers require students to keep writer’s notebooks, and others suggest this as an ongoing prewriting activity. See What a Writer Needs by Ralph Pletcher for an in-depth discussion of writer’s notebooks.

Using Technology

Although writing is generally a low-resource subject, there are products on the market that can assist students in many aspects of the writing process, prewriting included. Programs like Inspiration or Kidspiration help students by showing them ways to organize random ideas. For instance, Inspiration allows students to select various-sized and -shaped icons and shows them many ways to manipulate those icons to consider relationships and organizational patterns. This can also be done on paper, without the assistance of a computer. Other programs, like Writer’s Helper, help by asking questions about a topic. If the student submits the word “freedom,” for example, the computer prompts questions about the subject. Again, if students don’t have continuous access to computer programs like this one, they can still learn questioning as a technique for seeing ideas in new and complex ways.

The Internet can also play a significant role in helping students decide what to write about. Bloggers regularly post ideas that beg for responses. Responding to a real person, even one who cannot be seen, has innumerable benefits for student reading, writing, and thinking. In addition, blogs, like all kinds of reading, can spur ideas that generate new writing. One level of participation may be a student interacting with others about the topic. Another might be the student using something said to begin a new piece that can be worked on in writing workshop. Note: There are security concerns related to these kinds of activities in schools, but school media specialists and instructional technologists can help you limit access to online environments that are educationally appropriate.

Strategic Planning as Part of Prewriting

The difference between skills and strategies is that skills are automatic and strategies are intentionally activated. For example when a reader engages with a text that is simple and interesting, he or she likely makes connections as a matter of course. As he or she reads, there are automatic tie-ins to personal experience or the world or another text. When that same reader is faced with a far more difficult text, he or she must be intentional about making connections, so that self-talk occurs in order to slow the reader down for this text and activate metacognition (e.g., “Do I understand this?”, “What kind of connections might I make to better understand?”) Thus a reader might be skillful when confronted with one text and operate strategically on another.

It is the same with writing tasks. There are many kinds of writing that people do effortlessly. They need or want to say something, so they do. When students text message or IM each another, they rarely think carefully about what they are going to say before writing and pressing send. Like the reader who moves easily through a text, any strategies that they might use are invisible and automatic. That is because the cognitive demands of this kind of communication are manageable. We all do a variety of writing tasks with ease. There is no reason to incorporate explicit planning in these easy, often pleasant writing tasks. When confronted with a less familiar or more demanding writing task, though, writers often slow themselves down to say, “Ok, now how do I begin this?” This is approaching the task strategically, slowing it down and activating processes that have been successful in the past. Student writers often have little experience with strategic writing. Like all parts of the writing process, students need discussion, modeling, and guided practice, even in something as simple as asking oneself how to begin. This strategy might seem ineffectual, but it serves an important purpose by stopping students long enough to think.

In a mini-lesson on planning you might bring a writing task that you need to do for your professional life. Maybe it is a grant application, maybe part of a curriculum project or a memo to parents. By placing the “assignment” in front of the students or on the overhead projector or whiteboard, you can think aloud in the following way:

“Ok, I know I have to do this. I see that my audience is the assistant principal and curriculum specialist, so what do I know about how much background information I will have to give them in order for them to understand? I think they know XYZ, so I will skip that and just begin writing at the ABC point. Now that I have a good sense of my audience, I want to think through my purpose. Am I trying to convince them of something or trying to get them to do what they already said they would do…”

By doing this think-aloud, you model the way that writers use previous knowledge of tasks, audience, and purpose to begin to write. Although planning is often implicit, understanding how to do it in an explicit fashion helps students to confidently approach a range of writing tasks.

You can provide scaffolds for students as they learn to do strategic planning. The RAFT strategy can assist students in writing preparation. This acronym is to remind students to consider the Role, Audience, Format, and Topic for their piece. This can help students to reflect on important writing components prior to writing. You may ask students to write these out so that you can see their thinking, which will help some of them. Others will ultimately elect to do this as a part of their metacognitive processes. See the table below for a list of planning strategies. The specific strategy is much less important than that students understand the need to have a strategy. It is worth returning to the ideas of skills versus strategies when working with students in these ways. Teachers can remind them that some writing tasks do not require explicit planning — students can start drafting because planning is part of what they are doing without thinking about it, but they need to learn strategic planning so they can use it when faced with a challenging writing task.

Planning Mnemonics

Mnemonic Genre Stands for… Reference
RAFT Any Role, Audience, Format, Topic. Buehl (2001)
STOP Persuasive Suspend judgment.

Take a side.

Organize ideas.

Plan more.

De La Paz & Graham (1997)
DARE Persuasive Develop a topic sentence.

Add support.

Reject opposition.

End with conclusion.

De La Paz & Graham (1997)
STOP Any Stop and think of purpose. Troia, Graham & Harris (1999)
LIST Any List ideas and sequence them. Troia, Graham, & Harris (1999)
W4H2 Story Who/what/when/where?

How does it end?

How does character feel?
Graham, Harris, & Mason (2005)

Sample Mini-Lesson on Planning

The following mini-lesson is designed to help students think about how to plan their writing. Another mini-lesson focusing on this state of the writing process might show students how to free-write, brainstorm, or practice another kind of prewriting as discussed above.

How’s It Done? A Mini-Lesson on Planning

1. Teacher introduces the portion of the writing process under discussion on this day.

“Today we are going to talk about another way of planning your writing. Let’s say I have an idea for writing: I have decided I want to write a profile of a student in our class, or perhaps that is an assignment that was given to me by the editor of the school paper. I have the topic, but what else do I need to get started?”

2. Teacher talks about how students get started in this process.

“I know that I am going to select Ross because he has just returned from competing in the state track meet and got the chance to interact with students from all over the state. Instead of going up and asking, ‘So how was it?’, I think I might want to come up with a plan.”

3. Teacher models the process for the students on chart paper, an overhead, document camera, or the chalkboard.

“I am thinking about the kind of piece I want to write because that will dictate the questions I ask. I think I’ll focus just on this meet, not on what got him there and not really on the sport. Instead I’ll ask him what he noticed about the people on the other teams.”

4. Teacher leads students in practicing the process.

“OK, now I am going to give you a topic for writing and ask you to jot down some plans you might use before diving in.”

5. Teacher debriefs the whole group.

“What did it feel like to plan in this way? What difficulties did you have? Let’s remind ourselves why we might do this on a regular basis.”

6. Teacher prepares students for the physical, cognitive, and social demands of doing this independently.

“When you are planning writing on your own, sometimes you will be very strategic about your plans — this is especially true with a more structured writing assignment. Other times you won’t go through this kind of process; rather, you will write as part of your planning.”

Berne. J. (2009). The writing-rich high school classroom. New York: Guilford Press.
Adapted with permission of Guilford Press . Copyright Guilford Press. All rights reserved under International Copyright Convention. No part of this text may be distributed, reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, or stored in any information retrieval system without permission of The Guilford Press.