3c. From Curiosity to Inquiry

Topic Development and Prewriting

Learning Objectives

  • Deploy a range of prewriting strategies to choose a topic and narrow the focus of an essay.
  • Develop a working thesis statement to help you outline and draft an essay


For most students (and their teachers), the most difficult part of any writing project is knowing where to begin and how to fill a blank page.  The other difficult part, sharing your work with other people who might criticize it, becomes much easier if you have a positive start to a project. When faced with a blank page, it is easy to be overwhelmed, shut off the screen, and procrastinate. Experienced writers do not wake up each day, start typing, and crank out page after page of perfect prose or poetry. They take their time, try to keep a schedule, and follow a common writing process while developing their own style.

Just as you need a recipe, ingredients, and proper tools to cook a delicious meal, you also need a plan, resources, and adequate time to create effective academic essays, presentations, and other writing assignments. Writing is a process that works best when you follow steps and use time-tested strategies to accomplish your goals and meet the rigorous expectations of your professors. Chefs, surgeons, architects, musicians, and athletes do not become professionals overnight; they practice and practice their craft until they become technicians and artists.


Prewriting Techniques

In addition to composing Questions at Issue, a strategy explored elsewhere in Chapter 3, academic writers use a variety of prewriting techniques to develop a topic and begin their writing projects.  These include:

  • Task Analysis
  • Freewriting
  • Idea mapping
  • Journalist’s questions (5WH)
  • Web browsing

If you take the time prewrite while developing your topic, you will feel more prepared to develop a working thesis for your essay and begin outlining and drafting.

Using the strategies in this section can help you begin filling any blank page or screen with your ideas and evidence and confidently begin the writing process. As you try out the various prewriting strategies in this chapter and begin to draft, revise, and edit your essays, the following topic checklist can help you decide if your working thesis is narrow and focused enough for your assignment:

  • How can I develop curiosity and interest about an assigned topic?
  • How can my curiosity and reading help me develop my own topic?
  • Will my topic suit the purpose and audience for my writing task?
  • What do I already know about the topic? Is my personal experience related to the topic or task?
  • What more do I want to learn about this topic and where I can I learn more about it?
  • Do other writers disagree about this topic or have different perspectives than mine?
  • Is my topic focused and specific enough to fit the length requirements of the writing task?


Task Analysis

Many writing topics in college and the workplace are assigned as tasks. You may be tasked with answering a question written by your instructor or required to come up with your own topic for an essay with relatively little guidance.  When starting any writing processes, being with a task analysis. Read and analyze the task instructions both closely and critically, from the purpose and scope of the task to details about topic, length, deadlines, style, sources, and other requirements.


Writing assignments can vary widely by subject and instructor in college so you may have to ask follow-up questions in class, by email, or during office hours to make sure you understand the expectations of the task.  Just as some college writing begins with an assigned topic, professors and professional writers typically begin new writing projects based on topic suggestions from editors. When given the opportunity to develop your own topic, the following strategies can also be helpful:

  • Consider whether you can identify the purpose of the writing task and your audience
  • Reflect on what you already know about the topic and any personal experiences with it
  • Read the task guidelines critically and sympathetically and ask questions about the expectations
  • Annotate the task guidelines and highlight key words or information you need to remember



Freewriting is an exercise in which you handwrite or type without stopping for a set amount of time. During a freewrite, your goal is to fill the page with writing as quickly as possible without worrying about spelling, sentence structure, or punctuation. If you get stuck, you can copy the same word over and over again, insert tangents, and generally do all you can to stay focused on the task – whether you are brainstorming a topic from scratch or developing ideas for an assigned topic. You can write in full sentences, bullet points, rhyming couplets, or whatever strikes your fancy as you let your mind wander and write down all words that you can think of about your topic. You might try entering these words into a wordcloud generator (for example, Wordclouds or Wordart) to look for patterns that emerge or discover that you have a strong set of keywords to type into library and internet search engines.


Freewriting exercises the muscles we use to produce writing, which makes it easier on our bodies to sit down and compose paragraphs and pages of text required for essays.  If you can find a comfortable space to do your freewriting, you can relax and put away distractions like phones and social media. Try to write without doubting your ideas or worrying whether or not they make sense to someone else. Your flow of thoughts may lead you to unexpected or even uncomfortable places, but the exercise will definitely pay off later as you reflect, read, and further develop your topic.


Idea Mapping

Idea mapping is a form of brainstorming that turns the space of the page into a visual canvas. One way to brainstorm visually is to use your writing and art skills to fill the page with a visual interpretation of your topic or concept.  Graphic novelists, advertisers, and web designers are just a few of the people whose work requires the ability to combine text and images on the page.  If you are a visual learner or nonlinear thinker, sometimes starting in your comfort zone as you develop a topic or concept can help you prepare for the structured work of developing an outline for a formal academic essay.


Idea mapping is a structured brainstorming exercise that allows you to visualize your ideas and develop connections between keywords using circles, lines, and arrows.  This technique is also known as “clustering” because the ideas become clustered across the page and grouped together using lines and arrows. Many writers use larger and smaller circles to signify the scope or importance of certain words and help narrow a topic. Using idea mapping, you might discover interesting connections between topics that you had not thought of before.


To create an idea map, start with a blank sheet of paper and write or draw your main topic in the center and draw a circle or other shape around it. Use lines or arrows to connect ideas and keywords as you fill the space of the page. Create clusters of keywords and ideas across the page as your ideas emerge.  Idea mapping is a great excuse to get some markers, crayons, or anything that helps you think visually and use large sheets of paper. Use a camera to snap a record of your work to review later. You can also create idea maps on using slideshow software or other publication applications.


Figure 1: Idea Map

Example of an idea map, colorful circles connected by lines.


Journalist’s Questions (5WH)

Before narrowing a topic all the way down to a single question at issue that can be answered in a thesis statement, a general topic or concept can be effectively narrowed down and focused by applying the six journalist’s questions:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?
  • How?


Also know as 5WH, these six questions are a great place to start because they will inevitably lead you to asking secondary questions about how you can locate information in books, articles and other sources.  If the sources for an essay have been assigned to you (such a course textbook or set of shared readings), the journalist’s questions can help you read those texts sympathetically and critically to gather information and direct quotations that can be used to provide supporting evidence in your essays.


Web Browsing

For thousands of years, students and scholars had to go to a library, archive, or bookstore to browse encyclopedias, books, academic journals, magazines, government documents, and other kinds of source material to analyze and use as evidence in their essays.  Developed by computer scientists, the military, and universities during the second half of the 20th century, the internet became widely available for use schools, libraries, and homes during the 1990s.  Since then, students and their professors have been using web browsers, search engines, and online databases to brainstorm topics, read articles, and conduct research.


Your university library website is a great resource for topic development because librarians are highly trained to provide students and researchers access to information.  Information literacy is the ability to find, identify, evaluate, and use information effectively.  Librarians trained in information literacy pass on those skills by developing research guides and other materials that will be useful guides on your journey.  Librarians these days are very welcoming people who are happy to chat about your writing at any stage in the process. Your library website may also have a web page with tips on how to get the most out of your browsing experience.


As you browse, look for three types of useful sources to develop a broad perspective of your topic: primary, secondary, and tertiary.


Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

When searching for information on a topic, it is important to understand the value of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Primary sources allow researchers to get as close as possible to original ideas, events, and empirical research as possible. Such sources may include creative works, first-hand or contemporary accounts of events, and the publication of the results of empirical observations or research.


Secondary sources analyze, review, or summarize information in primary resources or other secondary resources. Even sources presenting facts or descriptions about events are secondary unless they are based on direct participation or observation. Moreover, secondary sources often rely on other secondary sources and standard disciplinary methods to reach results, and they provide the principal sources of analysis about primary sources.


Tertiary sources provide overviews of topics by synthesizing information gathered from other resources. Tertiary resources often provide data in a convenient form or provide information with context by which to interpret it.


The distinctions between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources can sometimes be ambiguous. An individual document may be a primary source in one context and a secondary source in another. While these definitions are clear, the lines can begin to blur in the different discipline areas.

Sources in the humanities and social sciences

In the humanities and social sciences, primary sources are the direct evidence or first-­hand accounts of events without secondary analysis or interpretation. In contrast, secondary sources analyze or interpret historical events or creative works.


Primary sources Secondary sources Tertiary sources
A primary source is an original document containing firsthand information about a topic. Different fields of study may use different types of primary sources, such as diaries, interviews, letters, original works of art, photographs, speeches, or

works of literature.

A secondary source contains commentary on or discussion about a primary source. The most important feature of secondary sources is that they offer an interpretation of information gathered from primary sources: biographies, dissertations, indexes, abstracts,

journals, articles, or monographs.

A tertiary source presents summaries or condensed versions of materials, usually with references back to the primary and/or secondary sources. They can be a good place to look up facts or get a general overview of a subject, but they rarely contain original material: dictionaries,

encyclopedias, or handbooks.


Subject Primary Secondary Tertiary
Art Painting Critical review of the painting Encyclopedia article on the artist
History Civil War diary Book on a Civil War battle List of battle sites
Literature Novel or poem Essay about themes in the work Biography of the author

Sources in the sciences

In the sciences, primary sources are documents that provide full descriptions of the original research. For example, a primary source would be a journal article where scientists describe their research on the genetics of tobacco plants. A secondary source would be an article commenting on or analyzing the scientists’ research on tobacco.


Primary sources Secondary sources Tertiary sources
These are where the results of original research are usually first published in the sciences. This makes them the best source of information on cutting-edge topics. This includes conference proceedings, interviews, journals, lab notebooks, patents, preprints, technical reports,

or theses and dissertations.

These tend to summarize the existing state of knowledge in a field at the time of publication. Secondary sources are good to find comparisons of different ideas and theories and to see how they may have changed over time: books, reviews, textbooks, or treatises. These types of sources present condensed material, generally with references back to the primary and/or secondary literature. They can be a good place to look up data or to get an overview of a subject, but they rarely contain original material.

Tertiary sources include compilations, dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks, or



Subject Primary Secondary Tertiary
Agriculture Conference paper on tobacco genetics Review article on the current state of tobacco research Encyclopedia article on tobacco
Chemistry Chemical patent Book on chemical reactions Table of related reactions
Physics Einstein’s diary Biography on Einstein Dictionary of relativity



Developing a Working Thesis

A writer’s thesis statement–the main point, idea, or argument–will typically change and develop throughout the writing process.  Sometimes, you will feel such passion about topic or have such a clear understanding of the purpose of a writing assignment that a thesis can spring to mind quite early in the process.  At other times, the most concise and expressive version of the main idea of an essay does not reveal itself until you have drafted the essay and revised it several times.  Before developing a formal outline or composing the first draft of an academic essay, write out your working thesis will help you stay focused on your main point or controlling ideas as you compose the paragraphs of your first draft.  Keep in mind that your thesis is quite likely to evolve during the writing process. A working (or preliminary) thesis should be a one or two sentence statement of your perspective, position, or opinion of a topic.


Chapter 3c. Key Takeaways:

  • Prewriting strategies can help every writer effectively begin the writing process
  • The steps in the writing process are prewriting, outlining, drafting, revising, and editing
  • Prewriting is the transfer of ideas from abstract thoughts into words on a page or screen
  • A good topic interests the writer, appeals to the audience, and fits the purpose of a writing task
  • Primary, secondary, and tertiary sources can each help a writer develop their topic
  • A working thesis that includes both a claim and a reason or evidence helps writers stay focused on their main idea while outlining and drafting



Chapter 3c is, including Figure 1, is adapted from Chapters 8 and 9 of Writing for Success by University of Minnesota, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources section of Chapter 3c, is adapted from a handout created by the Virginia University Libraries [pdf], which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.



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Writing as Inquiry Copyright © 2021 by Kara Clevinger and Stephen Rust is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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