Use pre-writing strategies to generate and organize ideas

Before you dive into writing an academic paper, it's helpful to brainstorm and organize your thoughts. The pre-writing strategies below will help you define, clarify,  and connect related topics . Doing preliminary research in encyclopedias can reveal basic understanding of a broad topic and help you complete these pre-writing strategies. The library database Gale Virtual Reference Library is a good place to find a variety of subject-specific encyclopedias for background information. Students can also meet with a writing tutor to talk out their ideas and develop a plan for an academic paper.


 An outline for an essay is a list of main topics with supporting details associated with a preliminary thesis statement. Outlining is a helpful way to plan out an essay so you know what you want to discuss and in what order.

Working thesis: Waiting tables at a diner was my worst job.

  1. Introduction
    1. opening remarks on what makes a job bad
    2. thesis
  2. Physically exhausting
    1. long hours, on my feet all day
    2. heavy plates/trays, arms and wrists hurt
  3. Poor pay
    1. little hourly wage, lousy tips
  4. Stressful environment
    1. difficult management/co-workers/customers - give particular examples
  5. Conclusion
    1. thesis restated
    2. closing remarks on finding a more fulfilling job

 Cluster Mapping

Clustering, also called mind mapping, is a more visual way to organize ideas. It's a good strategy to see connections between ideas. This technique can work well in conjunction with other prewriting strategies. For example, organize and connect ideas with a cluster map after pulling out topics and details from a freewriting session.

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has a useful digital mind mapping tool to help you generate ideas and narrow a topic. GoConqr also has a digital mind mapping tool, but you have to create an account in order to create a mind map.

Journalistic Questions

 Journalists ask questions like Why? How? When? Where? In what ways? Asking questions about the topic you are writing about is a good way to generate ideas and to look at the topic from different angles. Write down your questions along with answers you brainstorm and research.

Below are some generic examples of journalistic questions. Ask a friend to ask you questions about your topic to help you generate questions and possible answers to explore further.

How: How is the issue significant? How can the problem be resolved? How are people affected by it?

Why: Why did the issue arise? Why is it an issue at all?

Where: Where is this issue important? Where are the effects of this issue most keenly felt?

What: What are some other ways to describe this topic? What are different definitions of this topic? What are some opposing viewpoints related to this topic? What is the significance of this topic? What historical influences have led to this issue?

When: When was this issue most apparent? When did it develop? When in history was it looked upon differently? When is action needed to address the problem?

Who: Who is affected by the issue? Who stands to gain or lose? Who are the primary players and secondary players?


 Freewriting helps get out ideas without the stress of finding the exact words, organizing information correctly, spelling, or grammar. A writer's inner critic to "say the right thing" can get in the way of simply starting. Start freewriting by setting a goal to write nonstop for a specific length of time (ten minutes for example). Don't inhibit yourself if you get stuck. Write "I don't know what else to say" until something else comes to mind.  The purpose is to write so fast that self-editing doesn't get in the way of the brainstorming process. Don't worry about being "right" or making mistakes; you are just thinking through writing.

After the freewriting session is done, look through the passage and pull out any nuggets of information that are worthwhile keeping and expanding on further. It is also helpful to do another freewriting session but focused on a specific topic generated in the first freewriting brainstorm. Repeat the process as many times as needed.