What is free writing?
A handy and very popular creative technique is free writing. It is very easy: You take a pen and a piece of paper or open up a page on your computer—whichever you prefer—and start writing. Just write down anything that comes to your mind. Write quickly. Do not pause to think. Pay no attention to correct grammar or spelling. Do not go back to read what you have written. Just continue writing.
Basically, free writing can be three things: 1) a brainstorming technique (only that you use a full text instead of just key words), 2) a cathartic output of whatever is on your mind, and 3) a catalyst for creative energies that can get you started for the real deal.
You can either just free write freely, 😉 i.e. about anything that comes to your mind, or you can do focused free writing where you try to write about a specific topic.
However, even in focused free writing you don’t have to struggle to stay on topic. Write down whatever comes to your mind, as long as you now and then try to get back to the topic. Who knows where a little detour might lead you? 🙂
Most importantly, relax and remember that you cannot go wrong in free writing. Allow your writing to be chaotic, your sentences to stop in the middle, your thoughts to mix and mingle … If your writing is coherent and clear, only then you have done something wrong. 😉
The whole point of free writing is
- to get your head free,
- to get all your thoughts on paper unfiltered,
- to loosen up,
- to produce raw material that might not be usable as it is but can be salvaged for sentences, thoughts, or ideas that can be used for more ‘useful’ projects,
- to have some fun.
Many promoters of this technique advise to set a timer to 5, 10, or 15 minutes, write for that period of time, and then stop.
I frankly admit that mostly I don’t do that. I usually don’t use a timer because once free writing got me started on something, I don’t want to stop in the middle of it. I usually stop when I feel that I’ve said everything or when the time my schedule allows for writing is coming to an end.
Another advice frequently given is to never, ever stop writing. No matter what. If you momentarily don’t know what to write, they say, just write that you don’t know what to write. Or repeat the last sentence until you can think of something else again.
I rarely do that since I use free writing a lot in my diary or brainstorming for creative projects and I don’t want the pages filled with so many redundant sentences or statements saying nothing else than that I don’t know what to write.
And usually that is not even necessary. In my experience, you can pause to think, if you don’t do it for too long. Briefly pause for only a few seconds, then write down your next idea. As long as you don’t think back on what you have written so far but only think of what lies ahead, you will quickly have your next thought.
Not pausing at all is reserved for those times when I feel that I’m stuck and unfocused. When there is something on my mind that keeps me from writing (or being creative in any other way). Just writing down what is bothering me from my head onto the page sometimes helps to get unstuck.
I consider creative techniques to be a self-service outlet. Everybody is different, so not everything works for everybody. And particularly not in the same way. Try out everything. Keep what works for you and abandon what doesn’t work; unscrupulously adapt techniques in your own way to make them fit your needs.
Also, depending on what your goal is for a particular free writing session, keep in mind that there are different ways to free write. Make sure that your rules service your goal, not someone else’s idea of what they think free writing is.
Tips for Effective Free Writing
Having said that, I’d nonetheless like to present some tips for free writing sessions to you:
- Pay no attention whatsoever to grammar and spelling, nor to style or whether you’re making sense. Remember that this is not about a polished result. It is about getting you started and producing ideas.
- Keep writing, no matter what. Don’t stop for any length of time. If ideas really don’t come, continue writing by stating that you don’t know what to write or by repeating the last sentence.
- If you have something on your mind that block’s your creativity and keeps you from writing, if you feel depressed or angry or are afraid of something, use free writing to clear your head and get it out of your mind. Write down what bothers you. Describe your difficulties. Just get it out.
- While you free write, your inner critic has a day off. Do not go back to what you have written. Do not judge your writing. Don’t waste a moment thinking about whether your writing is worthy enough.
- Even though your raw text might seem worthless at first sight, don’t discard it too quickly. Make use of what you have written. Read through your writing, edit, mark passages that you like and would like to elaborate on later, be it the idea or a specific phrasing. Maybe you will have gained some insights into your difficulties that can help you to overcome them.
- To be able to let go completely in writing and be totally honest with yourself, write problematic free writes on a single piece of paper that you can shred afterwards. Having this option in mind will alleviate any inhibitions caused by the fear that somebody might read it.
- To make free writing quicker, some practitioners like to drop all punctuation. I’m not a big fan of this because it makes my teeth hurt while I do it and it makes it really difficult to read later. But if you’re not a nitpick like me, suit yourself. Either way, keep in mind that it is really no big deal if your punctuation isn’t always correct.
- Use a medium you are comfortable with. Do not force yourself to write. Let your feelings and thoughts flow onto the paper freely, without thinking overmuch and without inhibitions.
- Free writing gets easier after some practice.
How does free writing help us?
Free writing as a technique is most popular among writers and writing teachers. This is understandable as writing is what they do, and other groups often shy away from extensive writing exercises. But it would not be doing this technique justice to reduce it only to this area.
In a way, free writing is more common than one would think. Usually, it is what we do in diary or journal writing. In my opinion, whenever you sit down and start writing down what goes through your mind without having planned the text, that is free writing.
Like I said, it is also a form of brainstorming. It can help us in creative activities to generate ideas or put things on paper that have been floating in our heads in bits. It might still be unstructured on the page after free writing. But if everything is written down, it is easier to look over it again and give it some structure in the next step.
Also, if we have all our thoughts on paper for a project, we cannot forget any good ideas.
The technique might be best suited for writers since they are sitting down and writing anyway, but I’m convinced that it has helped me on various other occasions with my creative work.
Free Writing in Creative Writing
No matter what creative writing guidebook you look at and no matter whose creative writing workshop you visit, everyone is talking about free writing.
Free writing can be done at several stages of a writing project, or just at any time you feel like it.
It can help you when you get stuck. If at any point in your writing you don’t know how to continue, try some free writing. It is good to just get things out of your head that worry you, or get you writing when you think you couldn’t. Once you’re actually writing instead of just staring at the blank page, it is easier to continue writing, also in the direction you originally wanted.
Free writing can generate ideas that might be useful at some later point. It produces raw material that you can salvage for ideas and phrasing. It can also help you to discover topics that you might write about. Sometimes we are not even aware of aspects or topics that interest us but that might be worth looking into. Believe me, when you really allow yourself to fully immerse in free writing, you will learn a lot about yourself.
“Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say.” (Sharon O’Brien)
It makes you more comfortable with the act of writing itself and it is always good practice. Why not use free writing as a warm up before you start writing “for real”?
Tips for (Writing) Teachers
Free writing is a very valuable tool in the classroom. It can be used for various purposes and in different ways, not just in creative writing workshops.
In writing classes, use it as a “warm up” at the beginning of class. It helps the students set into writing mode and write down all their worries and ideas and thoughts that they have brought into the classroom and clear their head. They are then much better prepared to get to the “real writing.”
Some advice, though: Absolutely do not force or even encourage students to read out their free writing to the class. What emerges in free writing is often very personal and intentionally unstructured and chaotic. If done ‘correctly,’ i.e. in a way that really has all the benefits, the result is something you absolutely don’t want to read out. The thought of having to read their text out loud will inhibit students and they will not be able to write freely and without self-criticism. That is exactly what we don’t want. So tell them beforehand that this is just for themselves and they will not have to read any of it out loud.
Do make them realize, however, that free writing not only is a good technique to get into writing, but that it can provide material for follow-up writing. A few good exercises here might be:
a) Pick one word from your free write that speaks to you. Then write a story or another free write about this topic.
b) Choose 5-8 words from your free writing and then write a story in which all these words appear.
c) Choose one sentence that speaks to you. Write that sentence on a blank sheet of paper and use it as the first or last sentence of your story.
If you like, you can of course tell the students in advance what they are choosing the word(s) or sentence for. I think, though, that it is much more effective sometimes to just keep them in the dark at first. People might choose much more interesting or challenging things if they don’t know they are supposed to do anything with them afterward. Nasty, huh? 😉
If students in your group seem to have trouble writing or are overly self-critical, you can promote free writing as a way to get unstuck and relax, or to brainstorm ideas for how their stories could continue. Don’t just tell them. Practice it with them.
Even in any other subject, free writing can be a good way to start class. When you begin a new topic, why not have students free write about their thoughts and previous experience with this topic. This can be a good basis to compare notes or start a class discussion afterwards. If the discussion is to be more focused, have students read through their own free write before the discussion and summarize the main ideas in 5-10 bullet points. This can also help students to run into questions they might ask and have answered during the lecture and it will give you a good idea of what previous knowledge they have of the topic.
In self-study and exam preparation, free writing can also be very handy. Students can recap in writing what they have learned and what they know. This will both improve their memory and aid in spotting gaps in their understanding. I’m a big fan of teaching learners how to learn. This is a great learning method you could present and practice in class.
In the middle or at the end of class (or as a homework) students can racap in a free writing session what they have learned and what they are taking away from the lesson. This might also show them where they might still have questions. It is a good way to consolidate the attained knowledge before it is gone.
Some free writing prompts:
– Randomly pick out any word in the dictionary. Free write about that word for 10 minutes.
– Pick one sentence out of your free writing that you like. Write it on a separate piece of paper. Write a story or essay that starts with this sentence.
– If you’re not so much into writing, why don’t you try “free speaking” into a voice recorder 😉
– in researching this article I found that there is also “free blogging” where people put their free writing up as posts. I have never seen one, but it might be interesting what ideas surface. There is nothing against writing quickly and freely associating on a blog. However, I’d probably be in favor of reading through the freewrite before hitting the publishing button and at least correcting any spelling and grammar mistakes.
Making Writing a Habit
Many authors/writing teachers advise to set regular writing times where we just sit down and write, no matter what, or to a set period of time each day, say 20-30 minutes. This is supposed to help you make regular writing a habit, so that when you sit down to write, you won’t take much time to get into it. Free writing is perfectly suited for this purpose.
Free writing is a wonderful creative (writing) technique to brainstorm ideas, get you started, and write problems out of your mind.
It can be used for personal projects or in the classroom as a tool for teaching and learning.
Why not give free writing a try right now. Pick up a pen and paper or open a new document and start writing. Have fun! 🙂