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Prewriting and Outlining

Staring at a blank white page can be intimidating, but this can be made less daunting by breaking the writing process down into smaller, shorter, simpler steps.

Prewriting Techniques
Stasis Theory
RWC Handout
Come to the RWC
Downloadable Resources

After coming up with an idea through the brainstorming process, your next step is to clarify and consolidate that idea into something more conducive to structured writing. Anyone familiar with cooking shows will know that efficient chefs, after deciding what dish to make, take time to prepare their ingredients before doing any actual cooking—chopping scallions or measuring molasses and sugar into bowls. Prewriting fulfills a similar purpose.

Diagram for pre-writing and outlining: cartoon white blank page with an emoji of a startled/nervous face, with an arrow pointing to a thinking emoji with a thought bubble enclosing a thought/flow map. An arrow points from this emoji to a white paper with the thought flow map on it, with writing underneath.

Rather than face the blank white page unprepared, you can prewrite as a way of gently easing into the writing process rather than diving in head-first.

You can start by asking yourself questions about your topic to see if you know the information as well as practice how you’ll package the answers to these questions. What is your claim or your main point? What background information do you need? Why should your audience care? How will you address any opposing viewpoints or acknowledge other interpretations? It may be helpful to discuss these questions with a friend or classmate. An appointment with the writing center can be a great opportunity to discuss this portion of the prewriting process as well.

In the meantime, here are some prewriting exercises to get you going.


Freewriting can be a valuable tool during the prewriting phase. With your topic or a specific facet of your topic in mind, sit with a paper or keyboard in front of you and type. It helps to have a set timeframe for freewriting. Fifteen, ten, or even five minutes might do the trick. Some writing pros call this “zero drafting,” simply because it’s an opportunity for you to draft before you have to worry about any sort of deadline or grading process. The goal is to see what you already know about your topic, and to recognize that very often we don’t really “know what we think until we see what we say” by writing about it (quote attributed to E.M. Forester). Some believe writing is a “transformative” experience, i.e. the more you write, the more your understanding or ideas (or you, as a writer) transform–hence, freewriting is a great way to start figuring out where you want to go and what you want your writing to become.


Diagraming, or clustering, can be a helpful way of getting ideas onto paper, especially for those that are visually inclined. Draw a circle in the center of a page and write your main topic in the middle. Then continue to draw circles for the other facets of your future paper, connecting them with lines and creating a branching, nesting diagram of your argument. It may be difficult to translate such an abstract diagram into an ordered paper, but the main point of the process is to structure your ideas and to draw connections in your mind.


Outlining is one of the most popular and time-tested methods of prewriting. Outlining involves paring your ideas down to their bare necessities and laying them out in a logical order—nested as bullet points within a list. Larger ideas have precedence, with your thesis or main point at the top. Less important or tangential ideas are grouped together underneath the bigger points. Feel free to order and reorder these pieces of your outline in order to build the desired effect on your reader, but be sure to follow the basic principles of organization.

The Classic Journalism Questions

Everyone knows these classic questions, often called “the six journalistic questions.” These questions help contextualize what you know or need to know about your topic.

  • Who does this issue affect? Or who is involved?
  • What happened?
  • Where did it happen?
  • When did it take place?
  • Why did it happen at all?
  • How did it happen, or how did it all come together?

Use the journalistic questions to develop context, brainstorm avenues for research, and synthesize the information you already know with the information you’ll need to know for your future draft.

Final Thought

As you near the end of the prewriting stage, you start to enter the drafting process. Having a sold understanding of your own topic can be incredibly beneficial as you move onto the real writing. You may find that after practicing prewriting, the blank page feels less intimidating. Some writers do benefit by discovering on the page, so to speak, but the majority of us find writing much easier when we’ve laid some of the cognitive groundwork before we start pushing out that initial rough draft.

Good luck!

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Stasis Theory

You can check out our other landing page on stasis theory, but we should probably talk about stasis theory as part of the brainstorming process, too. Stasis theory goes back to Greek rhetoric (Hermagoras), and it’s a method for determining “the question is stasis,” the heart of an argument, or where the moment of disagreement lies between two or more parties. Stasis theory is also a great way to understand how our criminal justice system investigates a crime, or why political parties are often at odds with each other over legislation and public policy (the answer: they sometimes don’t agree on the question at stasis, meaning, one party wants to discuss how to fix a problem that the other party doesn’t quite see as a problem in the first place).

In a nutshell, stasis theory is much like the journalistic questions in that you ask four specific questions to try to figure out what needs to be researched or argued, or where others are stuck in their disagreements, so it’s a great way to brainstorm new topics, angles, or avenues for research.

The four stasis questions are:

  • Fact: does the issue we’re thinking about exist? In criminal justice theory, the question of fact revolves around whether a crime was committed–when the investigator comes to a crime scene, one of the first questions they ask is, did a crime happen?
  • Definition: the next step is to try to understand where the issue comes from, or what kind of crime was committed. Definition always refers to how we define, or view, the issue at hand–what do we call it? How do we understand it? Where did it start? Where did it come from?

  • Quality: simply put, quality references the importance of the issue. How much does the issue really matter, anyway? How egregious of a crime was it (a felony? a misdemeanor?)
  • Procedure: lastly, procedure asks us to consider our next steps. What are we going to do about the issue? How are we going to move our investigation forward? What more do we need to research?

Use stasis theory while you brainstorm arguments, or use it to figure out where you’ll need to do more research as you’re starting your research projects.

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Need some help getting started?

  1. Bring your outline to the RWC–our consultants are always eager to discuss your ideas.
  2. No outline? Jot down a few quick ideas–a potential thesis, a research question, a setting detail, a potential source.
  3. Consider purpose, audience, genre, and expectations. Sometimes it’s best to start by just asking yourself who your audience is and what they might need to hear in connection to your topic.