Demystifying Prewriting: Yeah, There’s an App for That
Monday, May 02, 2011 Tech Tips
By Matt Smith, Writing Consultant
In interviews, many well known creative writers report that one of the questions most frequently asked of them is also one of the most annoying: “where do you get your ideas?” Their answers to this question, while polite, detailed, and thoughtful, are usually elaborate ways of saying “I don’t know,” because writing—both creative and academic—is a complex, complicated process that often defies simple logic: what works perfectly for one person may not work at all for another, and what has worked in the past may no longer work in the future. While these writers are often unable to pinpoint the sources of their creativity (the ideas, they say, just sort of appear), they usually instead articulate the methods and techniques that they use to make themselves more receptive to inspiration when it arrives, allowing them to develop seemingly random connections and possibilities into something original. Some, for example, use freewriting (that is, writing constantly for a set period of time without stopping to change or correct anything) to bypass their inhibitions; others record everything of interest—an unusual phrase, a surprising fact, a key detail—in notebooks so that later, when they’ve forgotten all about those snippets of information, they can see them again and find new relationships between them.
This phase of the writing process, which consists of everything you do before you actually put words on the page, is called prewriting, and it includes almost as many tactics and tools as there are writers. Traditionally, prewriting methods—for academic writers as well as creative ones—were limited to what could be done with pen and paper: keeping notes in a college-ruled notebook, for example, or jotting your ideas onto note cards that you can rearrange into different organizational schemes. However, with the advent of personal computers, the Internet, and a variety of portable gadgetry (smartphones, tablet computers, etc.), new software tools have been created to help you organize and connect your ideas as you begin a piece of writing.
Freemind, for instance, is a mind-mapping tool that allows you to quickly record your ideas and rearrange them at will, creating organizational structures on the fly. It’s especially great for nonlinear thinkers (like me) who hate the Roman-numeral method (each topic indicated with a Roman numeral, each subtopic with a capital letter, etc., in an orderly column with sensible indents) and its oppressive linearity with a fiery passion. In Freemind, you can also use icons and arrows to visually connect ideas with each other regardless of their locations on the screen. Best of all, it’s free, and it will run on virtually any personal computer (there are versions for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux).
For those who prefer the flexibility of Freemind but still want to produce a neat outline at the end of their brainstorming sessions, Microsoft’s OneNote provides an even compromise. In this program—which costs money but might already be on your PC if you own a copy of Microsoft Office—you can arrange your ideas as nonlinearly as you think of them. You can type anywhere on the screen, for example, and move your notes around at any time, and, when you want to start organizing, you can rearrange those ideas into bulleted lists to easily establish a hierarchy for your thoughts. OneNote is only available for Windows, though—Mac users, I feel your pain.
If you struggle to record your ideas in the first place (never mind arranging them), you might find Evernote useful too. It’s a free note-taking program that can archive nearly anything—text, audio, photos, web pages, etc.—into a virtual notebook that you can access on your computer, your smartphone, or your tablet. You can add tags to each item in your notebook so that, later on, when you’re trying to remember that one article—the one you read about, you know, that thing, you know, that study on, um, I think it was memory and technology, well, I think so, anyway, and it was written by a researcher from the Cleveland Clinic—you can simply search for “Cleveland” to find it again. Please note that Evernote is so useful it’s addictive, and if there were ever a computer program likely to lead us into a science-fiction future in which everyone’s brain is connected directly to the Internet, this is it. (You’ve been warned.)
Like Evernote, Zotero, a free add-on for the FireFox web browser, has exhaustive archiving powers, but it’s targeted specifically at scholarly writing, and it can greatly simplify the process of managing and formatting your references to other authors’ works. Furthermore, Zotero is possibly the easiest of these tools to integrate into your existing writing processes—you simply read text (web pages, articles from scholarly databases, etc.) as you normally would in your web browser, and, whenever you find a thought worth saving, you simply add the text to a collection in Zotero (if you’ve used iTunes, you can use Zotero—their interfaces are quite similar). From there, you can organize your notes into groups and subgroups, building your observations into an argument grounded solidly in the texts you’ve read. Also—and this is truly magical—Zotero automatically retrieves bibliographic information from the vast majority of databases and websites you read; the program all but eliminates the tedious step of manually typing authors’ names, titles, and publication information into your reference list. The Walden Library has a great guide to using Zotero here.
Of course, you might find some of these tools more useful than others—Freemind, for instance, might be too chaotic for your way of thinking, or you might find Zotero too rigidly hierarchical. Still, I encourage you to try at least one of these tools the next time you begin a writing project if only because they all, in their particular ways, can help you develop good prewriting habits, those little rituals that allow you to clearly see the ideas in front of you, the relationships between them, and with practice and luck, something new too.