Dangerous Pedagogy: Preoccupied Prewriting (Part 2)

How can doing other activities help us write?

Here I demonstrate just how absent-minded my dishwashing can be. Needs some soap!

How do we generate ideas for writing? Do we sit staring at a blank page? I don’t know about you, but most of my best ideas come to me while I’m doing other things. So, why don’t we bring that understanding into our writing classrooms?

This article is part of the Dangerous Pedagogy series in which I try experiments in the writing classroom to find activities that more fully unlock the pleasure and power of the writing process for students.

In Part I, my students and I tested the usefulness of engaging in other (non-writing) activities when developing writing. However, we decided that drawing, solving complex math problems, and even coloring — staying in those domineering lines — were too demanding, requiring too much concentration. What we needed were activities that freed up our minds for its opposite (or its less stressed-out cousin), contemplation. What we needed were activities much more mundane. In feedback to Part I, my students remarked, “I get some of my best ideas while washing dishes.” But how could we bring sinks into the classroom? Believe me, I was devoting serious mental energy to this question when…

Here’s the exercise as I gave it to my students, followed by some sample responses and documentation. These exercises were used in an advanced writing General Education course in which they wrote all semester long on a research question of their choosing.

Preoccupied Prewriting Part II

Before you begin: Think about the topic for your blog. Are there any problems you are having trouble solving? What are you still trying to figure out?


  • Do the activity (20 minutes)
  • Write notes and reflections (10 minutes)
  • Document the activity (5 minutes)

Do the activity:

Take 20 minutes and do a mundane, “mindless” household activity, for example:

  • washing dishes
  • folding laundry
  • shining windows
  • cleaning a bathroom
  • Sweeping floors

It’s best if this activity is repetitive, something you don’t need to concentrate on, and something that you can do with your hands. (I’m taking suggestions for accessible alternatives. These activities do not necessarily require able bodies. They just need to involve some kind of repetition in activity that does not involve writing or language production.)

Write Notes and Reflections:

When you are done with that task, take 10 minutes writing down what occured to you during that time. Make any notes you need to make. Of course, not all of these thoughts will be about your blog’s topic. That’s fine. But write whatever came to mind for yourself.

Document the activity:

Post 2 pictures:
Photo 1: You doing your activity at the beginning
Photo 2: The results at the end (so we can see the fruits): folded laundry, washed dishes, et cetera. This could be a selfie. Let me know whether or not I can use the photo in an article about this activity.

Bonus:* Shoot 30–60 seconds of video of you doing the activity. *Bonus in terms of a fun extra (not extrapoints).

Reflection questions:

  • What was the experience like? What thoughts occured to you? Anything related to your topic or just other things?
  • How difficult was the activity? How much concentration did it require? Did you need to focus or could you go on auto-pilot?
  • How would you compare this activity with merely sitting and trying to write something or focussing directly on the questions while sitting still?
  • How did this compare with our in class activities from Part 1?

Last thing:
Comment on 2 other people’s responses….

Related Reading:

Student Comments and photos:

Autopilot! I knew this exercise were successful, when students wrote about going on “autopilot,” so they could think of other things. Remember, too, that we were doing this exercise in our test just before they left school for the semester. They were anxious, stressed, and quite frankly, afraid. Here’s a small sampling of what the students posted.

(* All student photos and comments shared with permission.)

I was sad that she labeled herself as “ugly,” but I know this was self-deprecating

One student talked about how her mind turned to other aspects of her life for the first part of cleaning her room….

Tidied up my room for a half hour

In narrowing my focus down to quarantine with school in mind, I not only thought of a bog topic through therapeutically going through my frustrations, but I thought of a blog to write about that links coronavirus to USC to my general blog-topic.

This comment made me a bit hopeful since the student had found a way to reflect on the current crisis without having to dwell on it. The student talked about thinking about all sorts of other things before finding a way back to the topic of their blog.

….And if you really, really break it down, I may have needed to be having the wrong or inappropriate kind of thoughts in order to have corrected my area of focus to where I ended up.

I love the “almost made” bed

Preoccupied prewriting works because it allows us to take advantage of our natural tendencies. When we try to think about something, our minds wander. So what if we put our mind on something else.

Preoccupied Prewriting profits from our procrastination.

I think we are so good at sitting down to do one task and immediately diverting our attention to some other thing that might occupy our time. So if I was to sit and try to write something I’d probably go run away and fold my laundry or find new music or scroll through my socials. So this activity kind of worked in reverse. Instead of procrastinating my writing by doing some other monotonous task, I procrastinated the tedious activity by working on my writing.

Slipping past the internal critic

Students are plagued by a rush to judgment, perfectionionism, and of course, fear of failure…

I think just sitting and trying to think of ideas puts a lot more pressure on me because if that’s all I’m doing, I want to be able to come up with as many strong ideas as I can and if I can’t, then I become frustrated with myself and beat myself up over it.

More to come on all of these, but I my first pass suggests that we may help students get a lot more out of writing, if we’re truly honest about what writing is!

Feedback? Suggestions? Questions? Comments? Try it yourself and let me know!

writer/researcher of emerging digital writing forms. Prof of Writing @ USC, Dir. of Com. for ELO, Dir. of HaCCS Lab

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