The term freewriting in this context comes from a scholar named Peter Elbow. He said that writers should just continuously write for 10-20 minutes to generate ideas and clear up their thoughts. In his own words, he wrote:
Don’t stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing...Editing, in itself, is not the problem. Editing is usually necessary if we want to end up with something satisfactory. The problem is that editing goes on at the same time as producing...
The main idea of freewriting is to find a helpful way of dealing with the chaotic thought processes inhibiting clear thinking while trying to transcribe our thoughts. Elbow argued that, “In your natural way of producing words there is a sound, a texture, a rhythm – a voice – which is the main source of power in your writing.” How cool is that? That same natural way of producing words should be a part of your writing process somehow.
You can use freewriting as a way to 'work out your writing muscles' and produce ideas, regardless of their focus. If that sounds good to you, hop to the numbered steps and get started – you might come up with an idea that you wouldn’t have otherwise found.
However, you might wish to focus your mind on a more specific topic or content goal before you begin (likely a topic that relates to an assessment you are working on). For example, you could freewrite on 'aspects of legal ethics', 'nursing responsibilities', 'themes in Hamlet', and so on. It's good to keep the topic a bit loose because your aim here is to stimulate ideas and capture some raw material, not to produce polished, brilliant prose.
Because the idea of freewriting is to get your thoughts onto the page without meddling too much or overthinking, use the voice that is most comfortable to you. This technique does seem to be more effective in the writer's home language, so use whatever language feels most suitable. Similarly, you don't need to force a stodgy or academic tone: colloquialisms (i.e., slang words), emotional asides, and abbreviations are perfectly fine.
During freewriting, as established, you will write without stopping, even if this means writing some sentences that are nonsensical or wholly unrelated to your topic. However, the raw material produced through this process can be refined after the fact – to get the most out of your work, we suggest culling and reflecting:
The premise of 'freespeaking' is identical to freewriting, but rather than typing or writing longhand, you speak aloud. This variation can be helpful if looking at the blank page makes you feel frozen. For whatever reason, rambling out loud can feel less psychologically fraught than writing.
Microsoft Word and other apps have a 'dictate' option that will automatically transcribe your words into text as you speak. You can also practice freespeaking with your phone (you might need to listen back and manually transcribe the recordings, later, if your phone won't do this automatically). Try some freespeaking while taking a walk or sitting in nature: the change of scenery might be just what you need to get un-stuck.
This is a sneaky but effective way to trick yourself into writing for 20 solid minutes. Use an interval timer to pre-set four total 'writing sprints'. The first should last two minutes, then four, then six, and finally eight. Give yourself a one- to two-minute break between each sprint. The end of the eight-minute sprint will mark 20 total minutes of freewriting. This is an excellent way to jumpstart an essay that has stalled out or failed to launch.
If writing perfectionism and/or writing anxiety are hampering your attempts to write, try this variation. Set your interval timer to 3-1-5-1-3-1-10. Here are your activities for the sequence:
You don't have to repeat this sequence every single time you sit down to write, but know that the tools are there as and when you need them. Many students who try out the 'intentionally bad writing' move find that getting any words on the page, but especially words without pressure or expectation, helps them overcome the mental barrier of sitting down to write.
Freewriting needn't be a solo activity. If you belong to a writing group or revise with peers, try suggesting a 20-minute freewriting session. Break the session into two or three sprints (the first time, at least – the group can eventually work its way up to 20 straight minutes of freewriting!).
It's not required, but some groups find it fun or motivating to assign roles. For example, one person can be the Timekeeper (i.e., the person who minds the clock); another might be the Enforcer (i.e., the person who calls out anyone who dares to stop writing before the timer dings). The mutual accountability found in a group setting is helpful for writers who procrastinate when left to their own devices.
You can mix and match the arrangements above or introduce your own variables to create freewriting sessions that work for you. Play with the length of your writing sprints and the breaks between. Vary the location where you freewrite. Try freewriting with a fountain pen in a notebook, then freespeaking via voice memo, then freewriting on your laptop, and reflect on which method felt the most freeing to you. You might also find it interesting to try freewriting when you are at different stages of producing an essay (e.g. invention, drafting, editing).