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Freewriting: Writing

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Fast facts

  • Freewriting is an exercise of writing without stopping or editing for a fixed amount of time.
  • Freewriting can be helpful if you are feeling blocked or anxious about your rough drafting.
  • This technique silences your inner critic to focus on producing words and discovering ideas.

What is freewriting?

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.

Reference: Elbow, P. (1998). Writing without teachers. Oxford University Press, Incorporated.

How to do it

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.

  1. Eliminate distractions (i.e., close your email inbox, mute social media notifications).
  2. Open a blank document, either digital or paper. (Note: if you dictate your writing, see 'Freespeaking', below.)
  3. Set a timer.
  4. If applicable, think of the topic or content goal you identified to focus on.
  5. Start writing.
  6. Don’t stop. Don’t look back. Don’t 'fix' or delete anything – forward, only!
  7. When the timer sounds, stop if you want. (On a roll? Keep going!)

A note on language and voice

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.

Culling and reflecting

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:

  • Cull: Read through what you have written a few times. Circle or highlight anything that feels interesting or promising. This could be a connection between ideas, a little phrase, an example to support a point you want to make, a word choice, anything! Remember, you aren't looking for 'perfect' final product: you are looking for potential.
  • Reflect: Having culled your material, take a few moments to reflect on how you might use your circled/highlighted scraps. Make a little list for yourself, or start a mind map, if you prefer. As you reflect, it's also good to pay attention to how this exercise made you feel: did your freewriting contain any statements of inadequacy, panic, etc.? Freewriting helps some students begin to understand how and why they experience 'blocks' and writing anxiety.

Using IT to your advantage

  • If your attention keeps drifting whilst freewriting, search online for a distraction-free text editor. These websites and apps eliminate superfluous content and tools on your screen, leaving a simple, uncluttered interface to type in.
  • If you can't resist the temptation to edit or erase whilst freewriting, use any app or website that lets you enable what's known as typewriter mode or Hemingway mode. These modes take away the option to backspace/delete – your cursor (and therefore, your writing) can only move forward.
  • If you want to engage in several rounds of freewriting with short breaks between, pre-set your rounds in an interval timer app or site. Timer tools can be customized to notify you in any pattern you prefer: for example, 5-2-10-2-5 (i.e., five minutes of writing, two-minute break, ten minutes of writing, etc.).

Variations on the exercise

Freespeaking

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.

The 2-4-6-8 variation

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.

The perfectionism-battling variation

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:

  • Write really badly (three minutes). I mean, go out of your way to write the worst prose you can. Make it clunky and jumpy and repetitive, use the wrong words, butcher the grammar, say things that are oversimplified or inaccurate or ludicrous. Write badly, and don't stop! (This is genuine: try it.)
  • Have a laugh and reflect (one minute). Read over your intentionally bad writing and have a giggle. Note that the world did not implode, nor did your cat or dog stop loving you, for having written some excruciatingly awful prose.
  • Freewrite on topic (five minutes). Bring your topic or focus to mind and write. Keep writing. Don't stop, don't edit.
  • Breathe and break (one minute). Take the mini-break that suits your mind and body. Maybe you stand up and stretch, maybe you practice box breathing.
  • Your choice (three minutes). If you feel good about doing another round of freewriting on topic, return to that and continue. If your inner critic is hollering too loudly to ignore, consider freewriting for three minutes about what you are thinking and feeling in relation to writing. Get it all out of your mind and onto the page.
  • Breathe and break (one minute).
  • Freewrite on topic (ten minutes). Try to keep going the whole ten minutes even if your inner critic protests. If it helps, you can literally write the parenthetical '(it's okay for this writing not to be good yet!)', then carry on with the sentence. The point is to keep going.

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.

Group freewriting

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.


Final thoughts

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).