Before the First Draft: Essential Prewriting Steps for Authors

When I was younger, my writing process went a bit like this: I came up with new ideas chapter by chapter, I had zero clue of how the story would end, and most days, I just went with the flow.

While some authors are renowned for doing exactly that and making it work, I always ended up feeling so confused and overwhelmed that I eventually abandoned the whole project in favor of a new one.

It was only when I finally put more effort into the prewriting stage – aka, the first stage of writing a book (both fiction and non-fiction) – that I discovered the magic of research, brainstorming, and outlining.

Is prewriting essential?

If you’re an extraordinarily talented fiction pantser (that is, a writer who works without an outline), probably not.

However, non-fiction books and elaborate fiction novels (especially in the high fantasy and sci-fi genres) do usually work best when they’re built upon a foundation of research and structure.

So, what are the benefits of prewriting? Which prewriting steps, techniques and tools can you make use of to ensure you don’t get stuck on your first draft?

Here’s everything in a nutshell.

4 Benefits of Prewriting

Prewriting may sound like a waste of time if you’re already itching to get the story down on paper, but it actually comes with many amazing benefits you get to reap later on in the process:

  • It makes for a stronger narrative from the get-go because your plot is carefully outlined and structured
  • It ensures you have all the necessary information you need, be it secondary sources for a non-fiction book or historical research for a romance novel set in the past
  • It helps prevent writer’s block because you can pick and choose which chapter you will write during your writing sessions and you won’t have to research and plan during the writing process as much
  • It gives your ideas enough space to brew at the back of your mind so that the story feels coherent once you begin to put it down on the page

RELATED READ: How to find the right nonfiction editor for you

Prewriting Tips: 5 Techniques You Can Try

At its core, prewriting is a very individual process. While some writers might not be able to live without mind mapping, others prefer to have freewriting sessions or bury themselves in research.

Ultimately, it’s up to you. What matters most is that some of the following techniques help you craft a well-structured narrative and that they hopefully make drafting a little bit easier.

Have your pick…

Technique 1: Brainstorming

Starting off with good old brainstorming, this is where all stories begin: with a collection of random ideas.

Brainstorming is all about putting your creative cogs to work and writing down all associations and ideas relevant to the topic at hand.

If you’re writing a non-fiction book on romantic relationships, you might create a list of everything connected to the subject, from the physiological changes whilst falling in love to making it work in the long-term.

If you’re about to create a high fantasy novel, you can write down all the major ideas, scenes, and lore that come to mind.

Remember: the point of brainstorming is not to create a few high-quality ideas. It’s to come up with as many as you can, no matter how bad. This allows your creativity to truly thrive.

Technique 2: Mind Mapping

Similarly to brainstorming, mind mapping is all about putting all your ideas down on paper.

This time, however, you’re creating clusters connected by branches, which allows you to organize your ideas in a more visually structured way.

I absolutely love mind mapping – especially when I’m trying to come up with plot twists or contextual background for my stories – but this exercise does take up a lot of space because you need quite a lot of paper.

Fortunately, there are many different digital corkboard websites you can use.

Technique 3: Research

This is a vital prewriting step no matter what your process looks like. This is because high-quality non-fiction novels rely on valid and reputable sources while fiction novels ought to be properly thought out so that they are complex and realistic.

If you want to write a romantasy novel, it’s important that you read other books in your genre.

If you want to write a non-fiction book on mindfulness, it’s crucial to compile all relevant secondary sources relating to the topic and extract information from them.

When you’re researching, try to turn the activity into an active process rather than a passive one.

For example, you can annotate and bookmark the novels you read in order to remember certain themes and ideas or to analyze plot structure in more detail.

RELATED READ: How to Self-Edit Your Nonfiction Book

Technique 4: Freewriting

Freewriting is an excellent way to dig deeper into a certain topic or theme. This prewriting exercise consists of:

  • Writing non-stop for a short amount of time (5-10 minutes is enough)
  • Letting your thoughts freely flow through you with no editing
  • Exploring a certain idea in more depth and seeing where your writing takes you

Freewriting is similar to brainstorming in so that you’re essentially brain-dumping on paper, however, it’s more complex and elaborate, which allows you to truly expand on your ideas and grasp them fully.

As part of freewriting, you can also write random scenes or chapters from your book in order to get a better sense of the chemistry between your characters or your narrative voice.

It is often when we write that we come up with the best ideas, which is why you definitely shouldn’t ban yourself from writing your story down – it’s just that it’s better to view it as part of the prewriting stage rather than a full-on first draft.

Extra Tip: If you want to structure your freewriting process a bit more, give looping a try. Looping comprises many short freewriting sessions, each of which digs deeper into a specific topic mentioned in the text from the previous session. This way, you get to narrow down your focus.

Technique 5: Outlining

Finally, outlining is the best way to ensure your first draft is a coherent narrative and you don’t get writer’s block every time you sit down to write.

Outlining is exactly what it says on the label. It’s the process of creating an outline for your book, be it by planning everything chapter by chapter, scene by scene, or beat by beat.
The scope of your outline can be as large as you’d like. It all depends on what makes you most creative and productive.

A good prewriting example is V. E. Schwab’s routine.

As she says in her newsletter, Schwab plans every scene in her novel before she begins to write the first draft. She also tends to unravel her stories from the end toward the beginning, which shows that everyone’s process can be completely unique.


Prewriting inevitably makes drafting easier, and what’s more, it gives you the space to conduct all necessary research and outline a book that has an amazing and well-structured narrative, be it fiction or non-fiction.

However, remember that the prewriting techniques outlined above are meant to serve you, not the other way around. If one prewriting method doesn’t work, another one might.

Don’t be afraid to experiment a little bit.

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