How to Free-Write

I believe most people who visit this blog for writers’ exercises, prompts, and warm-ups already know what free-writing is and how to do it. However, just in case, I thought it would be nice to put a brief post up for those few who might not.

First I’ll tell you about free-writing in my own words, then I’ll go dig up a few links in case you want more information.

Concept: The concept behind free-writing is simple: allow yourself to let go and write whatever comes into your head.

Purpose: If you haven’t done free-writing before that may sound pretty unimpressive, but there’s a very specific point to it. We all have a certain “inner critic” that judges our thoughts and words before they even come to the surface. Many writers, trained to go over their own work with a fine-toothed comb to weed out the flaws before presenting it to others, have a particularly strong inner critic.

Our inner critic serves a valuable purpose: it keeps us from embarrassing ourselves and others by saying and doing inappropriate things in public. It also helps us to take our work and make it the best it possibly can be. However, it gets a bit overenthusiastic at times. When you want to come up with creative ideas, the inner critic tends to dismiss many of your ideas right from the start. While it’s true that many of those ideas that it dismisses are, in fact, unworkable for one reason or another, sometimes exploring those ideas would still be valuable.

Even the silliest and most outrageous ideas can be mined for creative gold. Besides, the point of creativity is “thinking outside the box”–coming up with things that are totally new–and our inner critic tends to dismiss such things simply because they’re different. Or it dismisses our ideas simply out of a worry that maybe we aren’t good enough.

Therefore, the idea of free-writing is that by allowing ourselves to let go and write absolutely anything, we might come up with ideas that otherwise we’d be too constrained by worry, fear, and self-doubt to allow ourselves to think. Free-writing can train us to think in a more “loose” manner, making connections and coming up with surprising twists that we might not otherwise develop.

Potential drawbacks: What you have to keep firmly in mind is that something you free-write is for your use only; there are multiple reasons for this. First, if you’re worried about someone else seeing the result and judging it, that may constrain you; your inner critic can gain strength from that. Second, once you realize the value of free-writing in coming up with ideas it can become tempting to look at the results and think that it’s all good. You need to remember that you still have to sift through this material for the (often few and far between) diamonds of creativity that will emerge, and then you need to polish those up for public consumption.

Finally, although it’s very important to leave criticism and rules behind for this stage, that doesn’t mean that criticism and rules have no value. Eventually you do need to reintroduce them in order to shape your writing into something that others are likely to enjoy.

Method: Many people prefer to free-write using pen (or pencil) and paper, but you can use a computer. Try both and see which suits you best.

Free-writing is often best done with some sort of limit, of either time or space. You might set a timer or stopwatch for five to twenty-five minutes (ten is a good average, but it depends on what you’re working on), or plan to write for a paragraph or a page. This encourages you to keep going until you’re done, without getting tempted to stop early. Start small–five minutes or a paragraph at a time–and work your way up from there until you figure out what works best for you.

Once you start writing, don’t stop. Some teachers suggest that you don’t let your pen or pencil leave the paper. Let the words flow out of you. Don’t pause, don’t think about what you’re doing, don’t give that critic the chance to wake up and get involved. Try to make as direct a connection as possible between the unconscious mind and your hand, with your conscious mind making as few waves as possible.

Ignore the rules–every last one of them. Don’t pay attention to spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Don’t think about whether what you’re saying makes sense. Ramble. Leave periods out if you want. Change tenses if you feel like it, or viewpoints, or anything. Don’t erase. Don’t cross out. Don’t change a thing.

If you run into problems: Whatever you do, don’t stop writing. If you suddenly get stuck, write about being stuck and not knowing what to write next. Or look up and start describing the first thing you see. The important thing is to not stop writing until your time or space is up.

Results: Try doing all of your free-writes in one journal, so that you can go back and underline things, make notes in the margins, and so on. Any time you need inspiration or ideas this material will be there waiting for you. Alternatively, do the free-write and then take a half-hour to make notes based on it. What do you like? What ideas might you pursue, and how far? Which ideas inspire you?

More links for further reading:

Word Nerd!

Posted in Writing

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