Indeed, that is the question. This posting is going to cover why pre-writing is important, especially in the academic arena, and how it can make the difference between a knock-out submission or one that falls flat on its face.
What Is It?
Pre-writing is one of many steps in the writing project. It's one of the first things you do to get started. Why is this important? It's the launching point to a great submission. This is especially the case when you have large submissions, such as research papers, where there are many moving parts that can be difficult to manage if you don't have a plan of action in place. But pre-writing can even be used for smaller submissions, such as one-page essays. There's not a lot of moving parts, but the parts that you do have to consider still can be delivered effectively by having a concerted process in place to start everything off.
Save a few superhuman people, writing is hard. The act of writing may be natural, but the maximized expression of the content is not at all; that's something that has to be learned. This graphic says it all:
For us normal people with regular-sized brains, the hardest part of the writing process is the beginning. Pre-writing to the rescue!
What Does It Look Like?
Like Lady Gaga, it can take many forms. The most common type is brainstorming. You have probably heard the term before. It's simply the process of writing down all the ideas that come into your head when you think of a topic, or even when you're trying to come up with one. For us, this can be a difficult task. We're focused on organization and systematic ways of communicating thoughts, so our tendency is to be concerned with how the brainstorming comes out and falls onto the paper or computer screen.
It's counterproductive to approach it this way, though. You don't want a nice little work of art at the end of the brainstorming section. You want a hundred ideas displayed so that you can weight them in importance and interest. Of course, you want to have some type of order to your thoughts at the end of the session; you just don't want to be obsessive about the details of them.
Some people like to brainstorm via an outline. While we can appreciate this approach, it still strikes us as a little too focused on organization. Our suggestion is to write down the thoughts, and just before finishing, group the similar ones together. After that, start striking out the ones that clearly aren't germane to your goal or that won't allow for enough support to be given to your central argument. You can do this on paper or with a computer. The main consideration is getting those thoughts out of your brain.
Next, we have pre-writing. This is when you take your results from the brainstorm and start to officially organize them in a coherent fashion. It's important to note that this arrangement will likely change as your work on your submission progresses. Why? Well, you may find that one point that you thought imperative to state upfront may now be worthy of waiting until the end. Or you may find that several pieces of supoporting evidence just don't do the trick for your argument, so you'll need to remove that support and replace it with something else. There can be any number of reasons why changes will take place.
In pre-writing is where we suggest you start pulling together a working outline, even if it will change later. The purpose is to align your thoughts logically and in a digestable way for you to tackle when you start writing your submission. This is no longer the wanton floating around of ideas you find in the brainstorming session; this is time to visualize how these ideas can be presented with coherence.
After you have gotten your outline together--and after you have conducted enough research--you move into writing a rough (first) draft of your submission. This draft is not intended to be a chef d'oeuvre. It's supposed to have syntax problems and probably will divagate at several points. Really, this is a pulling together of your work in the outline and putting it on paper in an official format. Although you want to follow the flow of your outline, this is still not the place to be obsessive over the details. Just be mindful of writing coherently, and you'll end up with something that will remotely resemble the final output.
We consider the rewriting phase to be a part of the pre-writing experience in the sense that you still don't have a final piece of writing ready to be submitted to and scrutinized by the intended audience. This is when you're making corrections to the first draft, changing your organization, adding and deleting ideas and support, and ensuring that you are wittling things down to a fine point.
The rewriting phase may require that you write a second draft after you have excised much from the first. The excision process may result in your wanting to position your ideas differently, or even add new ones with proper support. This is normal if that's the case for you.
The pre-writing phase of the writing the process is crucial, no matter the complexity and size of the document, although the level of pre-writing necessary will vary. Just avoid the urge to skip it. Unless you're one of the famed writers of great novels and epics, don't even think about skipping this step.