Kirk Fontenot

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Define the steps in the writing process
  • Recognize the process of invention and differentiate between prewriting strategies

What Is Invention?

Invention is the start of the writing process. Invention means to come up with an appropriate topic, to develop a main idea about that topic, and to gather supporting evidence for that main idea. Prewriting is what we call the exercises that help you through the invention process. You can then start laying the groundwork for arrangement by writing an outline, which will give your ideas focus and organization.

Have you ever been given a writing assignment and sat down at a computer, pulled up a word processing program, and just stared at the blank document, feeling overwhelmed? Most of us have at some point! A writer is not a person who just naturally has the ability to turn that blank document into an essay; instead, a writer is anyone who has learned the writing process. Writing is a skill, which means that anyone who is willing to learn the steps and practice them can do it successfully.

The writing process described here is not just a technique from a textbook; this is how writers write in real life. Imagine a writer working for a local newsmagazine. I’m sure you’ve seen those kinds of magazines. They’re usually found outside of grocery stores or in a doctor’s waiting room, and they highlight local news and events. Imagine that this writer receives an email from his editor: “I’d like you to write an article promoting an upcoming party that will raise money for cancer research.” The writer accepts the job and starts the writing process, with the goal of having a clear, interesting article at the end.

The first step in this process is called invention. Invention is how any writer gets started. It usually involves some kind of prewriting. Prewriting is any exercise that helps the writer generate ideas and get started—and avoid staring at that blank word processor document! The goal of prewriting is to discover the point that you want to make. In this instance, the writer may start by making a list of questions they need to answer in the article: When and where is the party? How much are tickets? Is it casual or formal attire?

At this point, the writer needs to gather evidence. To gather evidence means to develop support for the point you’re making. When writing about a personal experience, prewriting activities may also help generate these supporting ideas. However, research is also sometimes a part of the invention process. A lot of academic writing and professional writing will require research on the topic. The writer in this scenario will conduct research by contacting the person organizing the party and finding out the answers to those prewriting questions they wrote down.

Notice how at no point did the writer sit and stare at a blank word processor document! Writing is an active process. Following the steps laid out in these chapters will ensure success at any writing project, whether personal, academic, or professional.

Now that you’ve seen an overview of the invention process, let’s go through it in more detail.

Prewriting Techniques

Prewriting is the first stage in the writing process. When using a prewriting strategy, you jot your initial thoughts about a topic down on paper. Prewriting has no set structure or organization; it is usually just a collection of ideas that may find themselves in your paper over time. Prewriting is also a great way to get past writer’s block—that period of time when you find you have no ideas or don’t know how to put your thoughts together. Many students want to skip the prewriting stage of the writing process because they see it as unnecessarily burdensome and time-consuming. However, dismissing the prewriting stage as being completely unnecessary is a critical misstep. Prewriting is an essential part of the entire writing process because it enables you to begin documenting the process by which the eventual essay will be formed and evaluated.


Freewriting is the process of simply writing down any and all ideas about the topic that pop into your mind. Set a timer for yourself and write continuously for 5 or 10 minutes on your topic. If you run out of ideas, rewrite the last word or phrase on the page until another idea jumps into your thoughts; never stop writing! It’s even better to write off topic for a minute than to stop writing, even if you write about what you had for breakfast this morning! Keep writing, even if it doesn’t make sense! At this point, you are just getting your ideas down on paper without editing or judging them. Don’t worry about formatting or organization. If you are trying to decide between topics, it is a good idea to freewrite on all of them to see which one provides you with the best ideas.


Mind-mapping is very similar to freewriting, but the outcome often looks more like a list of ideas. This strategy is quite similar to brainstorming where the listed ideas may or may not be connected with arrows or lines. You should set a time limit of 5 to 10 minutes and jot down all the ideas you have about the topic. Instead of writing sentences, you are quickly jotting down ideas, perhaps showing connections and building a map of your thoughts.


In questioning, make a list of questions about your topic and try to answer them. Start with the “who, what, when, where, why, how” type of questions. One helpful trick is to imagine yourself as a journalist for your local news station covering this topic as a news story. What kinds of questions would a reporter ask? Remember that reporters are seeking out specific, detailed information, so write those kinds of questions!


A picture is worth a thousand words. Your first thinking is done in pictures. So, if you are a visual learner and like to sketch out your thoughts, try sketching. Grab a pen and paper and draw what you are thinking. This strategy is especially effective if you are trying to conceptualize an idea or clarify relationships between parts of an idea. Sketching involves drawing out your ideas using a pen and paper.

One strategy that can be useful for planning compare-and-contrast-type papers is a Venn diagram. A Venn diagram is a strategy that uses two (or more) overlapping circles to show relationships between sets of ideas. The information written where two circles overlap is common to both ideas. The information written outside the overlapping area is information distinct to only one of the ideas.

Your Turn

Imagine that your writing instructor has asked you to write a review of the most recent movie or TV show you’ve watched. Which of the prewriting techniques we discussed would you turn to?

Key Terms

  • Invention
  • Gathering evidence
  • Prewriting
  • Freewriting
  • Mind-mapping
  • Questioning
  • Sketching


Whichever strategy you choose, be sure to save your prewriting work. You may want to revisit this stage of the writing process again to make sure that you captured all your thoughts in your outline or first draft.

Reflective Response

“The hardest part of a writing assignment is just getting started.” Students often say this; do you agree? Why do you think getting started on a writing project is such a challenge for so many? Which of the suggestions in this chapter will you try when it’s time to start your next writing assignment?

This chapter has been adapted and remixed by Kirk Fontenot from the following textbooks and materials: English Composition licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License; licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License; and You, Writing!, also licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). This remixed chapter in Writing Rhetorically is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, as well.



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Writing Rhetorically: Framing First Year Writing Copyright © 2022 by Kirk Fontenot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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