How to Write the 5 Paragraph Essay: 1st Stage — Invention/Prewriting

In the Invention/ Prewriting stage, you look at the topic, think about all the things that come to mind when you think about the topic, and VOMIT THOSE THINGS THAT’RE IN YOUR MIND ONTO A SHEET OF PAPER!

I’m sorry for shouting, but this is really important.  Get those ideas out of your head and onto a sheet of paper as quickly as possible before they scurry away like an army of cockroaches when the lights turn on.  Real life is distracting: the phone rings, you have to use the bathroom, your cat wants scratches, your significant other gives you that “Hey, baby” look.

You get the picture.

Once you get distracted, your mind shifts away from the topic.  Any ideas you had before goes bye-bye, unless you pin them down on a sheet of paper so that you can look at them later.

Invention is coming up with those ideas.  In most personal essays, those ideas come out of your own brain.  In essays calling for research, some of those ideas come out of places that aren’t your own brain: interviews, radio, TV, movies, magazines, books, websites, music albums, for examples.  Either way, in Invention you go to the place or places where ideas come from; those places of ideas are called “sources.”  Remember, YOU are your most important source, even with research.

Prewriting is grabbing at those ideas and slapping ‘em down on a sheet of paper.  You can slap ‘em down on a sheet of paper in several ways.  I’ll mention three forms of Prewriting that you’ve probably heard of before (at least the concepts, if not the names).  From least organized to most organized, they are Freewriting, Cluster/Mapping, and Brainstorm.

Three Forms of Prewriting

  1. Freewriting: the most natural but also least organized of Prewriting

Now, I know that some of you write like this: You stare at a sheet of blank paper or a blank screen for an agonizing amount of time, wondering how to begin that damnable first paragraph.  Then, in a flurry of fits and starts, you churn out what you believe are sentences and paragraphs until you run out of ideas.  If you don’t make the assigned essay length, you stare some more, try to write more, and end up repeating yourself somewhere.  Then you stop, sick of the whole thing, declaring that you wrote a rough draft of your essay.

Well, you didn’t.  What you just did was a form of Prewriting called Freewriting.  Freewriting is writing down, as quickly as possible, your ideas down, filling up the page.  Grammar?  Fuggedaboutit.  Spelling?  Punctuation?  Who needs it?  In Freewriting, you’re free from the rules of correct English.  Write EXACTLY what’s in your head, as much as you can, as fast as you can.  Turn off your mental critic!  Be free!  Here’s a short example of Freewriting, on the topic of “ice cream” that I’ve come up with:


Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream, yumyumyum.  Like ice cream, gives me a brain freeze, though.  Probably need a better toothpaste for sensitive teeth. But – what was I trying to say?  Right, ice cream.  Makes me fat but tastes so good, like on a summer day, but it melts too fast, wonder if there’s such thing as non-melty ice cream?  YUCK!  Probably would have all sorts of bleahy chemicals in it so that it wouldn’t melt YUCK YUCK YUCK L >-P  Anyways – what was I saying?  Right, ice cream.  Vanilla’s always a good standby, but kinda boring, ya think?  Same with chocolate, though my chocolate addict friends would probably kill me for saying that.  Oh well.  What I REALLY like is pistachio ice cream with real whole pistachios in them.  MMM – good.  Hrm . . . I’m hungry.  Think I’ll buy ice cream now . . .


You’ve probably noticed that my Freewriting has very few spelling and punctuation mistakes, but most folks’ Freewriting likely don’t look this nice.  An omigosh-this-is-illegible-messy-only-I-can-understand-it Freewriting is actually normal.  As an English teacher, I’ve internalized a lot of spelling and grammar stuff (after all, it’s part of my job).  So I don’t make many grammar mistakes these days, and, actually, this is how I think and talk in real life.  As a result, my Freewriting will reflect my current communications skill.  Similarly, your Freewriting will reflect your current communications skill.

Freewriting is like talking – you’re free to express what’s on your mind.  You do it when you email and write casual letters to your friends and family.  You ramble. That’s okay, because you’re free.

UNFORTUNATELY, since you’re free, you have a lot of work, trying to organize these thoughts into something that looks like an essay.  What you end up is a Freewriting with circles, cross-outs, arrows, added sentences or chunks of paragraphs here and there, making your Freewriting look like a complicated football play-book.  Futzing with a super-messy Freewriting can get time-consuming, which isn’t good when you have a looming deadline or during an essay exam, when you have a time limit.  So you might want to use a more organized form of Prewriting than Freewriting.  Or you might want to use Freewriting in addition to a more organized form of Prewriting.

2. Cluster: still feels natural but more organized than Freewriting

In Cluster, you draw a big circle in the center of your paper and label it with your topic.  Then, jot down your ideas that branch out of that big circle.  When you run out of ideas on one branch, go back to the big circle, look at the topic again, and make a new branch of ideas.  Do this at least one more time, but you can make more branches.  Each branch becomes an idea map of where your ideas are going and how they are connected to the Big Picture, that is, the topic.  Here’s an example I’ve come up with, using the “ice cream” topic again.



            With a Cluster, you can easily prune away parts of the branches or even whole branches that don’t seem to fit what you want to say, much more easily than Freewriting, since there aren’t sentence parts in the way to wade through. You can easily see when you don’t have enough branches, reminding you to come up with more ideas to slap down.  Notice that I used words, phrases, and even little drawings (the happy and sad faces).  Whatever you need to get those ideas out is all good; just get them out.

SUPER BIG TIP: You probably realize by now that a “cleaned up” Freewriting, will all those cross-outs, circles, and arrows, is just a Freewriting with a Cluster done to it.  Unless you’re really really in love with Freewriting as a Prewriting tool, why don’t you save yourself some time and just skip to a Cluster?

  1. Brainstorm: making a list

In a Brainstorm, you make a list of ideas that come to mind when you think about the topic.  Like Freewriting and Cluster, don’t censor yourself; whatever pops into your head, list it as quickly as you can.  The longer the list, the more ideas you can work with.  Here’s an example, using the “ice cream” topic again:


ice cream
cold, but if too cold, can’t get scoop through
soft-serve invented ‘cause of this?
don’t like soft-serve, prefer REAL ice cream
frozen yogurt – bleah!
feel sorry for lactose-intolerant
soy substitute invented because of it?
is there goat-milk ice cream?
😦 bleah!
think I’ll stop now


TIME OUT: Finding Your Thesis

Whatever you chose as your Prewriting strategy, you can use Freewriting, Cluster, or Brainstorm to explore your beliefs and opinions as a way of coming up with your thesis, if you don’t have one already.  A thesis is simply your topic plus your opinion of the topic.  You must be able to make it into a sentence.  For instance, out of one topic “ice cream,” I can create three different theses:

Ice cream is unhealthy.
Ice cream has a weird history.
Ice cream has great flavors.

Each of these theses would produce a different essay from each other because the details supporting each thesis would be different from each other.

But I Have a Thesis!

You can develop a thesis, either from your Freewriting, Cluster, or Brainstorm.  But if you have a thesis in your mind even before you put pen to paper or cursor on computer screen, then you might want to skip these less organized forms of Prewriting and move to the next stage of the Writing Process: Arrangement.  There, you arrange your ideas using more organized forms than what you find in Prewriting: Spider Cluster and Outline.  A Spider Cluster is a more organized Cluster, and an Outline is a more organized Brainstorm.

Many writers choose either Spider Cluster or Outline as their ONLY form of Prewriting, thereby combining Prewriting and Arrangement in one step, when they plan their formal essays.  My advice is to develop this habit as well.  (I myself bounce between Spider Cluster and Outline.)  The quicker you can arrange the ideas in your Prewriting, the quicker you can move on to the next stage of the Writing Process, that is, Drafting.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  So you have a thesis.  Here’s what you can do with it in the second stage of the Writing Process: Arrangement.


About lizardqueen

If single-mothering were a paid job, I'd be rich. However, it doesn't, so I write (which doesn't pay the bills) and teach (which does). I'm overly-educated in the liberal arts, but that doesn't hinder my ability to be pragmatic and realistic. YAY.
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