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Teach the Writing Process! Pre-Writing Strategy and Idea Exchange
NNWP's Jamie Priddy asks teachers everywhere to share their pre-writing techniques

Welcome to WritingFix's Pre-Writing Exchange Page. My name is Jamie Priddy, and I am a Northern Nevada teacher. The writing process has always been a very important element of the classes I teach, but it has taken some time and effort to get to a place where I can get my students excited about and engaged in the process.

My experience with writing in my classes often failed to reach my expectations for myself as a writing teacher and for my students as writers. Many students would rush through writing assignments, not even completing most steps of the process. I discovered that I needed to get my students to buy-in to the process so they could see the value in it.

It was evident that I needed to guide my students through the process and get them engaged with their writing. While reading a book called Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg, I ran across something that really made me think about what goes through our mind when beginning a piece of writing: "When I teach a beginning class, it is good. I have to come back to the beginner’s mind, the first way I thought and felt about writing. In a sense, that beginner’s mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write. There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before. Each time is a new journey with no maps."

If what Natalie Goldberg says is true, then a student writer sitting in my class, who is already feeling nervous and self-conscious, is feeling even more insecure about actually taking the step to write something down on paper that is his or her own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. I didn’t need much more convincing that I was going to have to make this as easy on the students as possible. I needed to help them in the beginning stages of writing when they are feeling no assurance that they will be able to write anything that they feel is good writing.

In Donald M. Murray’s 1972 article, “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product,” he focuses on how teachers can emphasize the process of writing as being the most important aspect, not the product. He states, “Prewriting usually takes about 85% of the writer’s time.” If prewriting is to take about 85% of the total process time, then this is the part of the process students need the most guidance with. When students spend some time thinking about what they will write, which words they will use, and how they will use those words to say what they want to say, they see that their writing turns into something in which they can take ownership and feel good about.

My purpose in establishing this pre-writing resource exchange page is to provide ideas to help teachers guide students through this very important part of the writing process so that your students can begin to see themselves as writers. I hope what we post here inspires you to share something original you do to make pre-writing feel authentic to your students.

Jamie also keeps a portfolio of her online lessons here at WritingFix.
Click here to access her writing lessons.

On this Page:

85% Prewriting? What does that even look like?
Pre-Writing Resources from NNWP Print Guides
WritingFix Response Exchange: Teachers Share Classroom Tools

Looking for books that inspire student writing?

Click here to see our cited books.

On Jamie's Bookshelf...

85% Spent doing Prewriting? What does that even look like in a classroom?

The great teacher and author, Donald Graves, once suggested that when the writing process is truly being honored by the writer, 85% of that writer's time is spent in the pre-writing step. That's a pretty huge number. If you ask most teachers what percentage of time they direct their students to spend in the pre-writing step, the number is usually nowhere near 85%.

Our WritingFix Webmaster, Corbett Harrison, often says, "I doubt I've ever actually achieved 85%, but that doesn't stop me from setting it as a personal goal when I am revising old lessons or creating new ones. If we are explicitly teaching the writing process, then it's a great number to challenge ourselves with."

The idea of 85% does make sense. If a student has more of an opportunity to think about and explore their writing topics long before they create a rough draft, then their rough drafts should be better, right? And if they have better rough drafts, think what better revisions they can add. Every successive step of the writing process might be improved by investing more time early on in the process. We're not saying it's possible to do this with every writing assignment we teach, but what if we just did it with just the really important ones? The ones we hope our students will place in their writer's workshop portfolios.

So let us pose this question to teacher users of WritingFix: What do you add to what you're already doing to increase the amount of quality time students are spending pre-writing? Here are some suggestions, and we hope if you have an additional suggestion that you'll share it with us.

Ask students to talk long before they write:
Require students to keep writer's notebooks:

If you know your students are going to write about a certain topic or idea, start challenging them to talk about that topic or idea days (or weeks) before they write drafts. Say, "At recess today, tell someone a story about [any topic can go here] because we might just write about that topic in a few days." Or--better yet--have them take the topic home and discuss it with their families. When they come back the next day, have them share aloud what they and their families talked about. Assign them to talk about future topics, then assign them to talk about what they talked about. The more talk before they write, the better.

We have a number of great lessons at WritingFix that explicitly instruct the teacher to assign talking-about-future-topics challenges to students long before they write. Here are links to three of our best lessons that do this:

Lesson: Bizarre Foods with Ralph Fletcher
Writing Topic: Write about a time you ate something unusual or watched someone eat something unusual.
Lesson: Starting & Stopping with Imagery
Writing Topic: Write about a special place that you love to visit.
Lesson: Introductory Prepositions and Series of Three
Writing Topic: Write about a special day you remember from your past.

The 2010-2011 school year became our "Year of Writer's Notebooks" in Northern Nevada. Inspired by Marissa Moss's Amelia's Notebook and Ralph Fletcher's A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer within You, we began revising many of the lessons at WritingFix to include a writer's notebook option.

What is a writer's notebook? It's easiest to liken a writer's notebook to a painter's sketchbook. The great painters didn't just grab the brush and start painting; they sketched in pencil long before they committed to subjects to paint.

A writer's notebook--as best modeled by Amelia in her notebook--is a place where students can freely explore life events and thoughts. The notebook does not contain drafts of writing; instead, it contains snippets of ideas that might be developed further, if a teacher gave the students an opportunity to write.

Visit our Writer's Notebook Resource Page to explore our writer's notebook lessons and prompts.
Strengthen your use of graphic organizers:
Spend more time analyzing your mentor texts:

A teacher at one of our inservices once made an interesting point about graphic organizers when explaining why he didn't hand them out to his students anymore. He said, "In real life, no one hands you a graphic organizer."

The trouble with that idea is that most students don't have enough experience with organizing writing to do it without a tool that helps them be successful. As adults, we don't need graphic organizers most of the time to write, but students aren't as developed as most adults.

Why not hand out graphic organizers the first half of the year, explaining to your students that during the second half they will be required to design their own? This will certainly teach your students to look more closely at the ones you provide, and it set them up to think about organizing writing as a future life-skill.

We talk a lot about designing quality graphic organizers (or advance organizers) at our lesson-building workshops for teachers. For too many teachers, this is what they consider to be enough of a graphic organizer for pre-writing:

This is a start, but where's the organized part? Clusters and lists are generally not very organized.

We stress that an effective graphic organizer should do two things: 1) allow students to explore either ideas or word choice options for the writing assignment (like the cluster above does) but also 2) provide an opportunity for the students to begin organizing the ideas in preparation to write about them. Most graphic organizers we see don't address this second part.

Another element lacking from a lot of the graphic organizers we see is that they don't focus on a specific writing skill. G.O.'s can (and should) do more than help students finish a piece of writing; they should help students understand and use a skill that real writers use.

One of the activities we do at our workshops is challenge teachers to think about skill-based graphic organizers. In groups we challenge them to design an advanced organizer that would help student writers be successful with the following skills during the pre-writing step:

  • Pacing a story
  • Putting another's ideas into one's own words
  • Varying sentence beginnings or lengths
  • Using subtle alliteration

When our teachers begin to design graphic organizers that are skill-based, they begin to realize that they have a lot to discover about designing better graphic organizers.

We also spend a lot of time showing our teachers how to use Microsoft Word's table-making tools to create more effective graphic organizers. To learn how to make tables, we assign them the task of recreating one of the following graphic organizers in small groups. For this task, the whole group figures out how to recreate the graphic organizer together, but each group member sits at a different computer and re-creates their own copy; if they get stuck, they ask the group for help, only requesting help from the instructor if the whole group can't figure out how to do something. Group members usually have enough basic knowledge of Microsoft Word and its table feature to learn to recreate these explicit graphic organizers without needing the teacher to show them too much.

Graphic Organizer #1 (a)
Graphic Organizer #1 (b)

These two advanced organizers are used in WritingFix's Floating Down a River Lesson. It is designed to teach the skills of strong details (idea development) and pacing (organization). Click here to access the entire lesson write-up.
Graphic Organizer #2 This g.o. is used in WritingFix's Moving through the Machine Lesson. It is designed to teach the skills of transition variety (sentence fluency) and sequencing (organization). Click here to access the entire lesson write-up.
Graphic Organizer #3 This g.o. is used in WritingFix's Poems about Ages & Stages Lesson. It is designed to teach the skills of theme (idea development) and passion (voice). Click here to access the entire lesson write-up.
Graphic Organizer #4 This g.o. is used in WritingFix's Just Because Poems Lesson. It is designed to teach the skills of mood (voice) and quality details (idea development). Click here to access the entire lesson write-up.

If the lesson you're using includes a mentor text, then teach your students to analyze and evaluate the published author's writing skills during pre-writing. We often read the mentor text at the beginning of a lesson for enjoyment and for inspiration, and that's an important step.

But how often do we look at the mentor text a second time to analyze it for the skills displayed by its author? If we did this type of analysis during pre-writing, would it help our students try those skills more often in their rough drafts? We think it would.

The trick is you have to find ways to help students truly analyze the text they are presented with. You have to help them with academic language so they can identify and discuss writing skills. Most students don't know the language well enough to have meaningful conversations with small groups or during a whole-class discussion.

Our original Revision Post-it® Note-sized templates were originally designed to be applied to students' rough drafts, but lately we've seen teachers also use them during the pre-writing stage. After enjoying a mentor text, students are asked to use the Post-it® Note-sized templates to analyze the writing skills in the text during a second or third read of the text. The "I" and "My" language on the Post-it® Note-sized templates requires students put themselves in the shoes of the author.

The important thing to notice on our Post-it® Note-sized templates is the verb--rank. Rank is a different verb than rate; when rating, a student could assign the same number to all five skills on the Post-it. Ranking the writing skills found in the mentor text means there can only be one 5, one 4, one 3, etc.

When students have to use these Post-it® Note-sized templates while examining a piece of mentor text, they are being pushed to think and the analyze and evaluate level of Bloom's Taxonomy. This kind of high-level thinking early on in the writing process just might help your students use the skills found on the Post-it in their actual rough drafts.

Click here to access all the Post-it® Note-sized templates we feature at WritingFix.

Model your own pre-writing strategies:

Most students in our schools don't see their teachers write. Too often, writing is assigned but not modeled. This is true for all the steps of the writing process.

Here's a short-but-sweet challenge: Model how you'd pre-write for a topic or assignment several days before students are asked to do the same. Model how you'd fill out the graphic organizer, or model how you'd look back at the mentor text for inspiration, or model how you'd talk and think about your topic to shape it better in your mind. Just model.

Make this the year your students start identifying you as a writer because you model more pre-writing strategies in front of them.

Analyze student models before students write:

At WritingFix, we take pride in the fact that most of our lessons come with--at least--one student sample that shows what the writing could look like when it's completed. Teachers from all over the globe use our lessons, and we appreciate it so much when they send a student sample (or two or three) that was inspired by the assignment.

We post the samples at the website so that other teachers can use them as discussion tools during any step of the writing process.

So here are a few questions: For pre-writing purposes, how would you prompt your students to discuss another student's finished writing so that two things happen? First, how can you make sure students think about the model using deeper verbs from Bloom's Taxonomy? Just saying, "I really liked the story because it was good (or nice or funny)" is not a good enough contribution to a pre-writing discussion. Second, how can you challenge students to borrow ideas or techniques from a finished model without having them simply copy ideas from the model?

Just showing a student model during pre-writing is not enough. It's important to discuss each model intelligently while teaching students that models are shown to inspire unique ideas and writing techniques. Visit WritingFix's lessons and look for the student models that come with them. Find new ways to discuss student models during pre-writing.

Click here to learn about WritingFix's Student Publishing Policies.



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Complimentary Pre-writing Resources from the NNWP Print Guides

At the Northern Nevada Writing Project, we take great pride in our print guides. These guides are created when we bring a group of teachers together to work on a common project. Once created, the guides become workbooks in our local inservice classes and workshops. We also sell the guides to teachers and districts not from Northern Nevada; the proceeds from these sales help keep WritingFix a free website.

Below you will find some complimentary pre-writing resources from two of our print guides. The Going Deep with 6-Trait Language Guide remains our most popular guide among teachers. The Secondary Writing Guide is actually out of print. If you decide to share an original pre-writing idea or tool from your classroom, you might be eligible to receive a copy of either guide. Details on this offer can be found below.

Six Pre-Writing Resources from the NNWP's
Going Deep with 6 Trait Language

Seven Pre-Writing Resources from
the NNWP's Secondary Writing Guide:

In 2005, Teacher Consultants from the Northern Nevada Writing Project worked together to create the NNWP's fifth print guide for teachers: The Going Deep with 6 Trait Language Guide. This guide is used by PLCs and during all of the NNWP's trait-based inservice classes for teachers.

In the trait guide's Idea Development Section, Jamie found a variety of pre-writing resources designed to help students pre-plan more developed (and organized) ideas for their writing assignments.

Below, you will find four excellent pages from the Going Deep... Guide, and you will find full-page graphic organizers inspired by these pages. If you'd like information on how to purchase the entire 196-page guide, click here.

In 1998, Teacher Consultants from the Northern Nevada Writing Project worked together to create the NNWP's second print guide for teachers: The Secondary Writing Guide. The Washoe County School District generously agreed to print 500 copies of this 450-page resource to distribute among every secondary language arts teacher in Northern Nevada's largest county.

In 2004, the SWG underwent a revision, which aligned the guide's original content to Nevada's new academic standards. A generous grant from the Walter S Johnson Foundation paid for the revision and distribution of the new guide.

In 2007, the guide was printed for the last time. The rising price of paper inspired the NNWP to began posting the SWG's contents on-line here at WritingFix.

  • Clustering: A four-page explanation (with examples) of this technique for pre-writing.
  • Mapping: A five-page explanation (with examples) of this more organized form of clustering.
  • Listing: A one-page explanation (with an example) of this alternative to clustering.
  • Creating a Character Exercise: Pre-writing to create an original character based on strong idea development
  • Fun with Sensory Details: Teaching students to pre-write using all five of their senses
  • Power Paragraph: Also featured on our drafting page, here is a technique to teach students to plan and compose paragraphs that explore topics meaningfully
  • Power Essay: Also featured on our drafting page, here is a technique to teach students to plan and compose a complete essay that explores topics meaningfully


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WritingFix Pre-writing Resource Exchange: Teachers Sharing Original Classroom Tools & Ideas

At WritingFix, we have shared Northern Nevada classroom ideas freely since 2001. Recently, we began asking the world of teachers to share back with us. We are seeking complete lessons, original teaching resources, and student samples, and we send complimentary copies of NNWP Publications to teachers who share ideas that ultimately get posted at WritingFix.

This is your opportunity to share back with us and possibly earn a classroom resource from the Northern Nevada Writing Project. Below are the types of tools we are seeking to include on this pre-writing resource page:

We're Currently Seeking Three Types of Pre-writing Resources
Share with us and you might earn a complimentary copy of one of the NNWP Publications!

Share original
Adaptations of WritingFix's
Graphic Organizers

In 2009, we began asking teachers who are using any of the posted WritingFix lesson to adapt the lessons' graphic organizers and to then share their adaptations with us. Great writing teachers look for ways to adapt others' graphic organizers.

At each lesson at WritingFix, look for the picture of the book cover at right. Near that book, you will find an invitation to share original adaptations you've made to any graphic organizers specific to that lesson. You can post your graphic organizers as documents or you can attach them as photographs.

If we end up posting your graphic organizer at the WritingFix lesson, we will send you a copy of any of the NNWP Print Publications.

Share original
Graphic Organizers for your
Own Writing Lessons

The best graphic organizers do two things: 1) allow students to explore possible ideas to write about; and 2) assist students in shaping those ideas into something that begins to show organization.

If you've created a graphic organizers for a lesson or writing prompt you've assigned your students and feel it's worth sharing, we want to see it because we're creating a graphic organizer library here at WritingFix. If we include your original g.o. in our on-line library, we'll send you a copy of one of the NNWP Print Publications.

An Example Graphic Organizer
(print on legal-sized paper)

If you have a graphic organizer you want us to consider for our library, please attach it as a document or attach it as a digital photo at this posting page.

Share original
Techniques for Increasing
Deeper Thinking during Pre-Writing

If--as Donald Graves sugggests--85% of a students' writing process time should ideally be spent doing pre-writing, that means we--as teachers--need to add a lot more strategies to our "pre-writing toolboxes."

We're asking teachers who've really looked over the resources on this page to share additional ideas about pre-writing strategies that occur to them. We're looking for short write-ups for pre-writing tools (other than graphic organizers) that would inspire other teacher users of WritingFix.

If these two examples inspire a write-up from you, you can post it here and you'll be eligible to receive an NNWP Print Publications, if we end up posting it on this pre-writing page.

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© Copyright 2015 - WritingFix- All Rights Reserved.
Please, share the resources you find on these pages freely with fellow educators, but please leave any page citations on handouts intact, and please give authorship credit to the cited teachers who created these wonderful lessons and resources. Thanks in advance for honoring other educators' intellectual property.

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