Prewriting

Photo of students in the library with a stack of books in the foreground

To write involves a much longer process than just the writing itself, and sometimes it can be difficult to get started. The best thing you can do to facilitate the writing is to do thorough preparatory work.

Prewriting consists of two different parts. If you have a clear picture of what you should do and what the task demands, it will be easier to lay out the path. This is why you should always analyze the task or the writing situation. The next step is to formulate a plan for your writing. With a plan of the work, and how the text should be structured, the writing becomes more self-evident and logical.

Analysis of the task

When you begin the work of writing a text, you must first analyze the task by investigating the following questions:

  • Which type of text should be written?
  • What is the purpose of the text?
  • Who is the intended reader?

Rhetoric/style

Different text types demand different types of rhetoric models. If the text you are writing is of argumentative character there are guidelines you should follow that apply to that type of text. If instead you are writing an academic report or a newspaper column there are other guidelines that apply to those text types. For this reason you should, first of all, find out what type of text you are going to write.

If the text type is not specified in the task, you should analyze which type is best suited for your task.

Level of language

By asking yourself which type of text you should write and what purpose the text should have, you will also find out what style level the text should have. How formally or informally you can allow yourself to formulate the text depends on several factors such as: the purpose of the text, where it will be published, what type of text it is and who the intended reader is. The intended reader gives a hint of what level of formality the language should have, and also what previous knowledge of the subject you can expect the reader to have.

A guiding principle is to always keep the reader in mind while you write. The text is meant to be understood by the reader and should therefore be as clear and legible as possible.

Material

In the analysis of the task, you also need to figure out how you should go about finding material for your text. Does the text type and purpose of the text require that you perform a quantitative study, or are in-depth interviews better suited? Some tasks may not even require any collection of data except an inventory of your own knowledge.

Tip!
You can find help for your information seeking at your library.
The library has subject and search guides on their website, and you can also get personal guidance.

Formulating a research question

Once you have got a clear idea of the task, part of the preparatory work is done, but still some work remains before you are ready to start writing. The first and most difficult task is to find a topic to write about. This mainly concerns the thesis, since the topic or purpose often is decided beforehand by the teacher in other types of texts. You should allow this process to take some time, and possibly the topic will change a couple of times during the work process. For this reason it is important not to start writing before you have prepared the plan carefully.

Brainstorming

Once you have analyzed the task you can start brainstorming. Make an inventory of how much you already know about the subject and consider how you should go about finding out more. Will all material come from your own knowledge and experiences or does the task require you to find information through the library, experiments, studies, interviews or other sources? It is important that you save all sources and information you find and possibly may come to use in your work. It can be a good idea to save a copy of texts you find on the Internet, as in worst case they may have been removed the next time you try to find them. Also gather all information about your sources, for example in a document, in order to facilitate the work with the reference list later. An alternative is to gather your references in a reference management system such as for example Zotero. You can find more information about saving references on the page Writing references.

Choosing topic

By gathering material you increase your knowledge on the subject and you can more easily determine what is interesting. What have other people written on this subject? What questions are of current interest? What is new? But, above all, what interests you? At this point it may be a good idea to discuss the choice of topic with others to get different points of view.

Defining the topic

Once you have chosen a topic, the next step is often to define the research question for the task. When going through the gathered material, a research question emerges that you can work with. To be able to write you need a research question (see examples below). The design of the task decides how narrow the focus of the topic should be; the shorter the text you should write, the greater the demand for a narrowly focused topic.

Three examples of research questions

Example 1: clarity

Unclear: Why are social networking sites harmful?

Clear: How do users experience and manage integrity issues on social networking sites like Google+ and Facebook?

The unclear version of the research question does not specify what social networking sites are concerned or what type of damage the sites cause. It also assumes that their harmfulness is already proven and/or accepted. The clear version specifies what sites are concerned (Google+ and Facebook), what type of question/problem (integrity issues), and who the question could affect (users). A good research question should never leave room for ambiguity or interpretation.

Example 2: focus

Unfocused: How does the production of renewable energy affect its surroundings?

Focused: How does the establishment of wind turbines affect land owners in Blekinge financially?

The unfocused research question is so broad that it could not even be answered in a whole book, let alone a student thesis. The focused version is limited to a specific type of renewable energy (wind power), a specific group that is affected (land owners), a place (Blekinge) and a specific type of influence (economical). When you are uncertain, make your research question as narrow and focused as possible.

Example 3: complexity

Too simple: Can massage alleviate cancer patients’ pain?

Appropriately complex: What effect does massage have for cancer patients with pain, and what instruments are used to measure these effects?

The simple version of this question can be answered with a simple online search, and it is not a question that leaves room for analysis. The more complex version of the question requires a more thorough study. A simple rule of thumb is that if you can answer the research question with a quick Google search, the question is probably not usable.

The examples were inspired by:
The Writing Centre at George Mason University (2012), How to write a research question.
Available: http://writingcenter.gmu.edu/?p=307

Important!
Make sure that the research question you have chosen can be treated in a satisfactory manner in the text that is required by the task.

Formulating a research question for your thesis

To write a successful thesis you need a good research question. Listen to some good advice from Ulrica Skagert, PhD in English and Quality development manager at Blekinge Institute of Technology.

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