Prime the Writing Pump


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

Prime the Writing Pump

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”

— Zora Neale Hurston

All writers get blocked sometimes. You write a sentence, read it over, and delete it. You write another and do the same. After an hour of writing, the screen stares blankly back. You can’t think of what you want to say or how you want to say it.


Sometimes you can’t draft because you don’t yet have enough to say. Writing is hard when you skip prewriting.

Prewriting is what you do to get ready to write a first draft. It involves gathering details, finding a focus, and creating an organizational structure.

How can I gather details?

Find details wherever they tend to congregate. If you are proposing a new marketing campaign, you’ll probably want to look at sales figures of existing products, market trends, profiles of buyers, survey responses, and so on. If you are preparing a retirement celebration for a colleague, you’ll want to gather stories and pictures and artifacts from colleagues who worked closely with the person.

Create a digital folder and fill it with documents that you find. Build a list of key links. Record interviews, send out questionnaires, take photos and videos—get the raw materials you need.

Here’s a strategy for gathering information:

Create a cluster.

Write your subject in the middle of a piece of paper and circle it. Around it, write other ideas and circle them, connecting thoughts in an organic way. This graphic organizer helps you visualize your thinking.

How do I find a focus?

Think about your reader’s first two questions: What is this about? And why do I need to know it?

The what is your subject, and the why is your purpose. You need to define them up front. If you can state your subject and purpose in a single sentence, you have your main point:

Once you’ve figured out your main point, you can gather details to support it. Use the journalistic questions (the 5 W’s and H):

  • Who is involved?
  • What is this about?
  • Where is it happening?
  • When is it taking place?
  • Why is this going on?
  • How will this work?

Note how the following list answers all of the reader’s main questions.

The last person in the building should do the following when leaving: (Who?, Where? When?)

  1. Do an "all call" to make sure no one else remains in the building. (What?/How?)
  2. Check that the copiers are turned off.
  3. Shut off all coffee makers.
  4. Set the answering machine light to the "Night" setting.
  5. Punch the new code (3613) into the alarm system and press "On."
  6. Exit the building, make sure the door is closed and locked.

Following the procedure will help us avoid future false alarms. (Why?)

How can I organize my ideas?

Your organizational plan depends on what you are doing:

  • To describe a location, use spatial organization (left to right, front to back, top to bottom).
  • To describe an event, use chronological order (first, next, then, afterward).
  • To tell a story, use narration (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion).
  • To explain categories, use classification (type 1, type 2, type 3, type 4).
  • To solve a problem, use problem-solution organization (analyze a problem and propose a solution).
  • To compare subjects, use comparison-contrast order (show similarities and differences).
  • To show causation, use cause-effect organization (demonstrate how one thing leads to another).
  • To explain a term, use definition (give denotation, connotation, examples, and synonyms).

You can record your structure using an outline:

  I. Introduction

 II. Body

     A. Main point

         1. Supporting detail

         2. Supporting detail

     B. Main point

         1. Supporting detail

         2. Supporting detail

III. Closing

When am I done with prewriting?

You’ll get an itch in your fingers to start putting ideas into a first draft. That’s the real benefit of prewriting—it makes drafting a quick and productive process.


Get More Support

Check out the Write for Business Guide, Courses, and eTips for more support with prewriting.