Friday, October 10, 2014

Writing Lessons for Students: Part One -- Pre-writing

It has been a while since we talked about the writing process on this blog, and it is getting to be that time of the school year where teachers are starting to give writing assignments, even perhaps in the major-writing-assignment category.

As we all know, the first step in the writing process is "Pre-writing," or, as Nardvark prefers to think of it, "thinking."  A lot of students make the mistake of tackling a writing assignment without really thinking about what they are being asked to do, and the result is writing that is all wrong.  That's why all good writers spend some time thinking before they write anything.

But what do they think about?  Lunch?  Their significant other?  Who they can persuade/bribe/trick into doing their writing assignment for them?  Well, hopefully not. 
Nardvark keeps a notebook of inspiration for writing ideas.

When you are given a writing assignment or even a written question on a test, you need to think about specific things before you can even begin to start planning your work.  You need to think about such things as:
  • main idea
  • purpose
  • form
  • audience

just to get you started.  Today's blog is focusing on "main idea."  Come back next weekend to find out how to think about your "purpose."

Main idea, otherwise known as "central idea" or "topic," should be able to fit in one sentence.  It is not a word or phrase; that would be your theme, such as "love" or "friendship" or "war."  If you already have a theme, you can build your main idea around it.  If your teacher has assigned you a question, you will be able to write your main idea easily -- it is your answer to the question

As you mull over your main idea, you need to think about some of the other things listed above.  For example, your teacher might have told you what form you have to write in.  

If you are writing an essay or research paper, your main idea can be built up into a thesis statement.  If you are writing something more aesthetic like descriptive prose, a memoir, a narrative or story, a poem, or a song, you need to decide on your main idea before you can go any further.  For a narrative, such as a story or ballad, your main idea would be your logline, or the sentence you might see on a movie poster that urges you to watch the movie: "One last mission.  One man, one drug dealer -- it's war!"  This tells us just enough to build a story on. 

Sometimes you have a writing assignment and you just don't know what to write about.  It's not fair.  You're not an idea machine that can be just switched on and off at your teacher's whim!  That's another reason we need to have some "pre-writing" tricks.  There are ways to come up with ideas for any writing assignment situation.

If you are assigned a pragmatic text, such as an essay, you have probably been doing some kind of reading leading up to it.  This is English class, after all.  There is nothing wrong with using the ideas in your reading to base your writing on; in fact, teachers love it when you do that.  If your teacher asks you to do a compare and contrast essay, for example, and you have been reading poetry in class, you can compare and contrast the styles of two poets.

All good writers keep diaries which they can draw ideas from.  If your teacher asks you to write a pragmatic text but does not give you an exact question, you should start by writing your response to the things you are studying in class, English class and other classes.  Maybe something from your history class will interest you enough to write a research essay about it, or maybe something in your Biology class will inspire you to write an opinion essay about bioethics.  So every day, jot down your thoughts in response to your classes, and you will have plenty of ideas to draw from when essay time comes.

If you are assigned creative writing, you can draw on any of your experiences -- stuff you learn about in class, a comic you read, movie or show you watch, things your talk about with your friends (not the dirty stuff!), things you see or hear when you're out and about.  If you have a crappy memory like the Nardvark, you should definitely keep a small journal or diary and note down these experiences and your reactions to them or thoughts about them.  Then every time your teacher asks you to write something, you will have plenty of ideas to start with.

But chances are you have to write something right now, and you have not been keeping a diary and can't remember what you had for breakfast let alone what your reaction was to the last movie you watched.  So in this case, you need to do some actual pre-writing exercises.

Pre-Writing Exercises: 

One is brainstorming.  Think of an experience you had recently.  Write down all the ideas and thoughts that you can in response to it.  Just a list of words and phrases should do it.  Then look at your list, and use the process of elimination to select your main idea.

Another is free-writing.  This means you just start writing and see what happens.  Maybe if you start writing down the lyrics to a song you listen to a lot, an idea will spring out of it.  If you start writing a letter to an imaginary friend or a one-time-only diary entry, chances are, some great idea will be in there somewhere.  Your head is filled with ideas; you have them when you're showering or falling asleep, but you can tap your brain and get the ideas out any time by doing free-writing. 

Of course, the worst writing task of all, and perhaps the easiest to screw up, is the essay test.  This requires pre-writing as well.  You will need to examine the question very carefully, or you may end up writing an excellent, grammatically-correct, heart-rending essay on the wrong topic.  Use the following steps to make sure you know exactly what to write before you write anything:

1. Highlight question words -- words such as summarize, explain, analyze, compare, contrast, suggest, and so on each ask you to do a specific task.  Make sure you know what the question is asking you to do.

2. Underline details -- essay test questions often ask you to refer to a specific text or even a specific part of a text, discuss a specific character, theme, topic, etc.  Sometimes they ask you to talk about the writing.  Look for the word "language," "words," or "author."  For example, "Analyze how the language used conveys a sense of urgency..."   In this question, we know we have to look at the author's word choices and literary techniques used.

3. Circle the small words -- they are easy to overlook, but sometimes a small word can trip you up.  Are you supposed to discuss Romeo and Juliet, or Romeo or Juliet?  Are there two parts to the question, or did the teacher give you a choice?

After spending a few minutes reading and thinking about the question, you will be able to form the main idea, which is essentially the answer to the question, for your essay.

Once you have your main idea, you need to think about your writing purpose.  This will help you choose your form and style.  Come back next weekend for more about writing purpose.