One of the reasons I decided to come to Agnes Scott was because of its emphasis on writing—writing across disciplines, writing as a thought process, writing for pleasure and for communication. Imagine my chagrin, then, when I arrived and was forced to do all of these pre-writing assignments before I could even get into “actually writing.” A writing assignment would be dangled in front of me, and before I could excitedly reach up to grab it, various and sundry other assignments would be handed to me to do before I could begin writing. Most people reading this blog will groan along with me when I throw out the phrases “annotated bibliography,” “working thesis,” and “outline.” Surely no one except lowly undergraduate students can be subjected to such torturous assignments….. right

After I started working as a tutor, these plaguing assignments only seemed to grow worse. Not only was I subjected to my own pre-writing tasks, but other, equally-upset writers kept coming in with questions about Roman numeral-ization for outlines, or stylistic concerns regarding double- or single-spacing in the annotations of annotated bibliographies. Really, what was the point? I mean, I guess it was a good thing that there were more assignments since it meant that my entire grade did not hang in the balance of one paper, but by this point, I was almost willing to risk it. Because I am a good student and fairly grade-oriented, I never kvetched aloud—just quietly to myself. I learned to do these assignments to the professor’s satisfaction and simply decided to cut my losses and get over it. 

Then, in my senior year, a revelation came to me in the form of more academic freedom. Many of my professors decided that I was far enough along in my academic career that these pre-writing assignments were not necessary. If I wanted to hang myself out to dry, that was absolutely fine with them. I rejoiced! Good fortune and happiness abounded! After the celebrations finally subsided, though, I realized that beginning the writing process was actually very difficult without… well, a process. For years, I had relied on the much-hated outlines and annotated bibliographies as a low-stress way for me to begin to write. Without these steps leading up to writing, it was like trying to jump across a vast distance in a single bound. I was suddenly very aware that those pre-writing assignments had been for my benefit, not the benefit of my professors. I could put in or get out of them as much as I wanted. Suddenly, all the stress of stylistics and mechanics of whether an annotated bibliography needed to be in full sentences or could be left in sentence fragments fell away.

I am a total convert now. Whenever I have writers come into the Center who have been given free reign with their papers, I encourage them to use forms of pre-writing to get their thoughts collected. It makes writing papers a much more efficient (and possibly) rewarding experience. Cater the pre-writing exercises to fit your needs as a student, not the perceived needs of the professor. Most of the time, professors can tell when you are doing the assignment for the grade, and when you are pre-writing to help yourself, and almost always, they appreciate pre-writing for yourself. If you’ve never done a pre-writing exercise for yourself, I highly recommend trying it. It may not be as constraining as you initially thought.