Pre-Writing as Invention

Today in my Introduction to College Writing class, I gave students their first formal writing assignment and walked them through it, line by line.

After we’d gone through several silly and serious questions about deadlines and such, I gave them 20 minutes to work on pre-writing. I’d introduced pre-writing this way:




I’d put up on the board. We then talked about what each might entail, all the different kinds of work that happens before the drafting. Here’s our list:


(I made sure to remind them that this is not a linear process–don’t worry.)

I told them they’d have to turn in pre-writing at our next class meeting and to try to use three different pre-writing techniques. Their responses were funny–some were puzzled and kept thinking that the entire paragraph was due next class. No, no, just the pre-writing. You’re making this harder than it has to be. It should be easy and fun!

Finally, they settled into that idea and wrote actively.

At the end of the class, during the last three minutes, I told them briefly about the importance of this work. I haven’t made this connection for students before, especially for students in basic writing, and it got their attention.

The work you’ve been doing and that you’ll continue doing tonight and tomorrow seems easy, common sense, but really it’s complex and, what’s more, spending more time gathering ideas up front can make the actual WRITING (a.k.a drafting) part of the process much more pleasant. If you can generate twice as much or more than you might need, then your drafting work will really be ORGANIZING and PRUNING DOWN, not trying to generate more more more to fill up empty space.

I added this to the board:

Prewriting & Invention

What you have been doing is part of an idea about communicating that is part of the Western intellectual tradition, something that goes back thousands of years. Aristotle’s five canons can be used to describe the writing process and can be used to evaluate writing. What you are engaged in right now is what we can think of as that first canon, or step, INVENTION.

This word comes from the Latin word “invenire” (in-vay-neer-uh, as our class Latin student told us), which means “to find.” So what we are doing is not just creating ideas, but gathering, harvesting, corralling them. Bringing them to light. We are working on WHAT to say. HOW to say it, that comes later.


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