How Do I Start? Part 1: Prewriting

Writing in any discipline presents us with an imposing experience: Staring at a blank page, just before starting to write. The good news is that, with a little practice, we can face this experience with plenty of confidence—and also some preparatory work that makes it much easier. The present section offers us some simple exercises that can help get past that moment of anxiety, that "What do I do now?" moment. But the best piece of advice is also the shortest:

Writing is a Process: Start early!

If there’s a single most important thing to remember about writing, it’s that writing is a process. Actually typing complete sentences into a blank document is just one tiny step, and it happens somewhere in the middle of the process. If we can follow the other steps effectively, it does not have to be a daunting step. The three basic steps toward a successful paper are prewritingwriting, and revising. We need to keep in mind that each of these steps deserves significant time, so we need to start early. This section has two parts: Part 1 (below) discusses prewritingPart 2 discusses draft writing.

Before we face that blank page, we should prepare ourselves with three key elements:

  • Preparatory Exercises
  • Appropriate Research
  • An Outline

We have to remember to fine-tune each of these elements as we go, to make sure it suits the writing situation we face. For more information on common writing situations and their explicit and tacit requirements, see What Can I Expect? For more information on types of research, see What Is Social Work Research? This guide provides two exercises to help the prewriting process and get us started on appropriate research:

  • Apply the Why - An easy exercise to turn the kernel of an idea into a more specific research question or hypothesis. Specific questions or hypotheses will help us conduct appropriate research.
  • The Real Outline - An easy exercise to break up an argument into sub-arguments that fit each section of a paper, producing an outline that we can work from.

A Preparatory Exercise: Apply the Why

There are many potential ways to get our ideas started, and we may find that we prefer to diagram things visually, or create lists. Either way, before we can even start researching (or even crack open the textbook, if it's that kind of writing situation), we need to figure out what we're trying to say. One way to do that is to take over our first kernel of an idea—no matter how small or basic—and turn it into a question we'll have to answer, or an argument that we'll have to support. To do that, we need to call upon a handy grammatical category: the interrogative pronouns. Once we have a more specific question or hypothesis, we'll have the search terms we'll need to make our library work manageable.

For this exercise, we'll need a writing assignment, a very basic declarative sentence in answer to the assignment, and the interrogative pronouns: What? Where? When? Who? How? Why? We'll also need about half an hour of uninterrupted time (to do the exercise), and then some more time to conduct our research.

A Preparatory Exercise: The Real Outline

Even if we already have an argument in mind, and even if we've already done some useful prewriting exercises, the blank page of a word processing program can still look mighty intimidating. An outline can help, but it can also get in the way. Consider the following outline:


Literature Review
Main Argument

This looks like an outline, but really it's a list—a list of section headings! If I need to make a clear argument, the words 'Literature Review' might be just as nerve-wracking as staring at a blank page. In this exercise, we'll take this list of section headings and turn it into a real outline, using a sample argument from the previous exercise, Apply the Why.