3 Ways of “Prewriting” Without Writing

Often, on a Saturday night at the end of a long week of graduate school, I would debate with myself about whether I was actually going out social dancing. I was tired, the venue was far away, and – I reasoned – I still had grading to do. But it was dance, after all, that pastime-turned-passion which I’d pursued ever since finishing my undergrad.

And then, almost invariably, I would jump into my car, a 2002 chevy cavalier, fill up on gas, and drive the 45 minutes or so on the freeway until I reached the swing dance venue. Once there, I would dance to my heart’s content – or at least until I had to head back home.

Several people asked me how I managed to have time to dance while in grad school – especially when the venue was that far away. My secret was simple: on that long stretch of multi-lane highway during my commute, I would be working on an essay.

What is Prewriting?

When people talk about prewriting, they’re often referring to what’s commonly considered the “first step” in the writing process. This involves writing activities that organize and generate ideas, such as creating brainstorms, lists, clustering, outlines, and freewrites, some of which I include in my post “3 Tips on How to Start Writing.”

“Prewriting,” then, is a sort of a misnomer, since it implies the absence of writing, – something you do before writing – when in fact it’s often used as shorthand for a certain kind of writing in the writing process. It’s a kind of “writing before writing,” which seemingly doesn’t count as real writing. “Preliminary writing,” I think, would be a better term for written forms of “prewriting.”

Its prefix also causes confusion: prewriting isn’t something limited to the initial stages of the writing process. You can do “prewriting” throughout the process, and return to it again and again.

Non-Written Forms of Prewriting

Written prewriting is certainly useful. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have previously written a post about it, nor would I practice it myself. But I think that, sometimes, in wanting to get pen-to-paper (or fingers-to-keyboard), we overlook the importance of non-written forms of prewriting.

And so below, I offer three basic practices of what I’m calling “non-written prewriting” that have worked for me. I have found that though simple, they are effective ways to enhance writing and sharpen the writing process.

  1. Thinking

    This is how I spent many a Saturday night during my MFA, driving into dancing, thinking about my writing. Usually, I would have worked on an essay at home until I couldn’t write anymore, hitting a kind of writer’s block – the kind which is perpetuated by staring at a computer screen and expecting ideas to come to you (see “On Escaping Writer’s Block“). I found that for me, driving was the perfect opportunity to break free of constraints and allowed my mind to explore untapped possibilities on whatever subject I happened to be writing about. (My mind could work a lot faster than my fingers.) Thinking also allowed my mind to wander freely and form new connections that I couldn’t imagine while trying to force myself to write. Sometimes I drove for 45 minutes, only to dance for 45 minutes, then turn around and drive home again. But even if the dancing alone wasn’t worth it (it was!), that dedicated, uninterrupted time that I had to think through my writing always proved fruitful.

  2. Reading

    I’ve found that one of the best ways to enrich my writing is by reading something completely different from it. It can be hard to pull myself away from a project, but if I think about non-required reading as part of the writing process, it makes it easier, and also allows me to engage in and enjoy the pleasures of reading. When I step away from my writing and read what others have written, I can return to my own writing, not only with fresh eyes, but with new insight. Often, it’s through reading something completely unrelated to my writing that I’ll come across an apt analogy, a word I was searching for, or just a new perspective, that I can then bring back to my writing. This is different from actively doing research, which is another topic altogether; the incorporation of my everyday reading into my writing is often much subtler. In short, reading stimulates my imagination, and presents new possibilities.

  3. Talking

    One of the most beneficial aspects of my MFA was the writing community I was apart of, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog. Initially, I was skeptical about talking with peers about my writing before I had even submitted it to workshop. I’d previously worked independently, only sharing my writing once it was as close to perfection as I could make it. But as time went on, I realized just how invaluable the resource of talking to other people was during the initial stages of writing. Different perspectives were useful for just that reason: they were different from my own. My classmates would ask questions I never thought of, bring up ideas that were outside of my experience, and see gaps in my writing that I was blind to. Since beginning this blog, this aspect of my writing process has shifted a bit for me, but it is still there. Even before I made my blog live, I spoke with several people about my ideas and incorporated their suggestions into the site. While this is sliding into a written medium, I also receive ongoing feedback from current visitors of the site. Comments are particularly thought-provoking for me, and allow me to think differently about something I’ve written, gain a new perspective, and consider other ideas for future posts.


For me, it can be easy to get mired down doing too much preliminary writing. Trying to write myself out of it doesn’t often work. And so, I find the need to strike a balance between non-written and written forms of prewriting. Using the basics I’ve discussed allows me to continue, and write anew.


Question: What forms of non-written prewriting do you use?