Planning and prewriting differ greatly. While both activities have the potential to address structure, prewriting is specifically done before a draft (whereas planning/structuring can be done during the action of the draft).
Prewriting, as taught in schools, is composed of charts, maps, lists, and/or craft projects with glue sticks and glitter. At that point, all teachers want is a student to learn to construct thoughts in written form. Bonus points awarded if these thoughts formed either a fundamental narrative or simple argument.
Prewriting serves this same purpose no matter the writer’s level. Before a project, before planning even, ideas can be initially translated into notes, files of pictures, collections of highlights in various books, and research, too, can be called prewriting. Still, many writers long for the structured approach from those first years of writing and get sucked into the idea of prewriting as a magic, foundation process which, if done right, will make their book far better.
You can find writers peddling their planning/prewriting maps, methods, or systems all over the Internet. You won’t find a new one here. Before cruising the big names in writing formula, consider the three main purposes of prewriting, more importantly consider your purpose or what you want from the process.
1. Multiplying Material
Many prewriting techniques focus on brainstorming, or coming up with more material to thicken up an idea. One example of a multiplying exercise is free-writing; writing with no predetermined direction for a set amount of time just to put thought to paper. Authors like John Steinbeck (in the age of permanence with only pen or typewriter) advocated free-writing as the purest form of the thought-to-paper transfer.
Other idea-generating prewriting techniques include mind maps, a tool which produces a kind of hierarchy of ideas from a main concept outward toward concrete details. There are more structured methods, and many novel writing methods are a variation on this theme. (The Snowflake Method comes to mind.)
The good, old-fashioned list approach is a kind of map, though one more organized toward several main ideas. It works well with nonfiction applications, as well as narrative prewriting. The structure does a great job of showing holes in an argument (by showing areas with little supporting evidence), while it applies equally well to the sequential nature of a narrative. Still, this might lean a bit too closely to planning for some people.
2. Tidying the Piles
Sometimes ideas pour out so fast, you’re left with piles upon piles of details that are pretty useless each on their own. World-builders in the fantasy and science fiction genres are often plagued with this particular issue. With too many notes on culture, character, and full fictional biology, the piles can make it difficult to nail down what story will actually be told.
In this case, organization is the name of the prewriting game. Charts, like pin boards delineating the three-act structure and scene blocking, are a powerful tool in getting random material to start fitting a story structure.
For more plan-oriented writers, story shaping methods may be the tool necessary to tame the detail hoards. There’s the Snowflake Method, though there are other structuring techniques available. Those writers who have and use such mathematical systems tend to either keep them close to the vest or sell them in classes or instructional books. Writers Digest discusses some of the more popular options in their post.
However, we’re not discussing planning, we’re discussing prewriting. Not always the same thing. So, back to the prewriting point, writers faced with an overabundance of disconnected ideas and no central story would do well to organize them in some way.
Filing (or piling) notes according to their purpose is one quick and dirty way to show where work actually needs to be done to fill the gaps. If the document listing potential characters is thin, but there are two whole folders full of work on a militaristic society structure, then perhaps the characters need to be developed a little more. Or there could be a long list of adorable romantic scenes waiting to be written, but the setting document is a single line long. This may need correcting, it may not. The point is to know what has been done to death in order to better focus prewriting efforts.
3. Pursuing a Purpose
Some types of projects benefit from highly structured planning. Technical non-fiction, for example, has strict form rules depending on the professional target audience. Law books are one example. Still, few people actually write whole law books, and (if they do) they’re probably not reading this post unless they write fiction for fun. There is plenty to learn from this approach, though, not the least of which is a handy acronym: T.A.P. Focus on setting the Task at hand, Audience for the work, and Purpose for the project. This is often a good place to start when working on a non-fiction project, or even on a new novel with a powerful theme to share.
Selecting a structure before writing gives clear direction for prewriting and preparation. The epistolary novel, for example, demands special attention be paid to two major characters above the rest – the characters who are writing to one another. A novel, by its sheer size, often requires multiple lines of conflict which can be explored in prewriting to save intense revisions later. In the case of a poem (poetry being a hugely varied field) selecting a certain structure, meter, or visual affect will influence the early versions as well as what images to seek out.
Another take on “pursuing purpose” in prewriting (alliteration not entirely intentional) could be that you know exactly what the story needs, but not quite how to get there. For that, there are hordes of resources out there! They’re often the easiest to locate. Take the humble character chart as an example. Varieties of this prewriting exercise are available from simple appearance sheets (like making an all-points bulletin) to complex personality profiles, fatal flaw generators, etc.
The ultimate purpose, let us remember, is to get words on a page. If they’re useful, great! If they’re not worth keeping, at least its practice putting thought to paper. Use the prewriting techniques you need to get writing, and don’t get hung up too long. There’s a story to write, after all.