by Elaine R Snyder
Oh, the woe of staring at an empty screen, the cursor blinking incessantly, and as the minutes tick, your inspiration inches off into a corner to sulk. For writers, this can be a frustrating experience when you’re trying to craft a novel, but it costs real time and money when sitting for hours without ideas, especially if writing is your livelihood. Years of teaching writing to thousands of students has given me the opportunity to offer people a real solution that works: freewriting.
What Is Freewriting?
This term is fairly popular now amongst teachers of writing, and as a student you may have even utilized it to help get yourself started on an essay or two. It was originally introduced by Peter Elbow, when he himself struggled to write for school, then observed his college students struggling to write for classes he taught. He wrote several books, like Writing with Power and Writing without Teachers, and is still writing to this day.
When I learned about freewriting for the first time, I was 19 years old and attending Fredonia State University in New York. My professor of a course called “Writing for Teachers of Writing” introduced me to the works of Natalie Goldberg, who is an expert of freewriting in her own right. Goldberg followed up on Elbow’s work by adding her own spin of Zen Buddhist practices to the elements of freewriting through her books Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, and when I began to utilize her techniques I was hooked. I still use Goldberg’s practices to this day, but after using these practices for nearly 30 years, I have observed new aspects of freewriting which I now share with my students.
First, let’s get into the definition of freewriting. At its most basic, freewriting is writing without rules. Generally, the idea is to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and a writing utensil, and you write a topic or idea at the top. Set a timer for the desired number of minutes, and then write whatever comes into your head.
Literally, anything goes. The biggest factor to be successful in a session is to avoid editing. Keep the pen or pencil moving no matter what. Regardless of what you write, no matter how incorrect the grammar, spelling, or punctuation, you continue writing. No crossing out words or making changes. Leave all the words and mistakes and keep the hand moving across the page until the timer runs out.
How Does Freewriting Work?
If you stray off the topic, much like a meditation session, you gently write yourself back to the topic at hand. So, if you are supposed to be writing about the history of cheese, and instead you start writing about the laundry, you gently write something to the effect of, “Oh, oops, I’m supposed to be writing about the history of cheese right now, so what else comes to mind about that?” It simply triggers your brain to get back to the topic it wants to avoid. Eventually your brain gets the clue that you are not stopping until some kind of magic happens, and then like magic, it does. Well, usually. But we’ll get into that in a minute.
This technique can serve a writer in many ways, not just as a pre-writing tool, which is how freewriting is typically advertised in a classroom setting. I used it as a classroom teacher every day for the first three minutes of class, and it did many things for my students. It served as a means for transition from the hallway to classroom work to get students focused on the task at hand; I gave them writing prompts which either reminded them of past work we did, got them thinking about the work we were about to do, or started the process of connecting ideas between subjects; and it also provided students with an opportunity to write whatever they wanted, as long as they started out on the topic I wrote on the board.
When I utilized freewriting this way, I never had a shortage of hands in the air when I asked a question. Everyone had an opinion because they had just written about it for three minutes.
Stuck in your writing? Try writing without rules. Start freewriting.Click To Tweet
After that writing session, most of those middle schoolers were much calmer and more engaged in the learning, too. I never graded freewriting, either. For this work, I always just gave them credit for doing it, regardless of what they wrote. Without any prompting from me, many of my students began to see this as a challenge to attempt to write more every day, competing with their own past work to see how much material could come out of their pens in that short three minutes.
Over time, this method proved itself in so many ways: in test situations, in writing improvement, in idea generation, in creativity, and so much more. Honestly, the list is endless when you consider the possibilities of how freewriting can help any writer tap his or her brain for whatever may be needed.
Should I Use Freewriting?
If you are a writer and are having trouble with getting started, you can use freewriting to gather creative ideas for what to write. You can also use it to figure out how to keep writing when you encounter a road block in the middle or near the end of your work. If you can’t remember something you learned, try freewriting about it—you might be surprised by how much detail you can recall from past situations when you use freewriting to tap into your cortex. Maybe you need ideas for a good title, article, or character names.
Freewriting can help you. If you need to compare the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe, but aren’t sure how to wrangle the topic, try freewriting. Can’t figure out why you keep hamstringing yourself in your attempts to get into a writing habit? Freewrite about it.
Absolutely anything you need to tackle can be addressed through freewriting, from how to start a paper to reasons you hate raw onions. All you have to do is start with a title (like “Reasons I Hate Raw Onions”), set the timer (try starting with five minutes), and then keep that pen to the paper the whole time (even if you have to write “I can’t think of anything to write” for the whole five minutes).
If you get stuck even when freewriting, you might just be tired and need a break, or you might need to try it again. It doesn’t have to be limited to just writing, but that’s typically how it’s used. When my students used to complain about getting stressed during tests, saying their minds would go blank, I encouraged them to take a minute or two for freewriting. Why? Because the way it works in the mind is why it works so well. Allow me to explain.
Why Does Freewriting Work?
When you get stressed, your brain gets the signal that something bad is happening. This instigates the release of stress hormones into the bloodstream and causes your body to go into what we all know as the “fight or flight” reflex.
Even though modern life doesn’t usually require much in the way of needing to flight or flee (depending on where you live), our biology doesn’t know that. It’s set up to take care of business, which means that the blood flows away from the areas of the brain where deep thinking and memory happen, and is then diverted to the muscles. Because your cortex can’t access memory or connect ideas as readily, it causes you to go blank, get writer’s block, or get stuck in some other way.
To unlock that mode in your body requires physical activity. If you’re in the middle of a test, you can’t just get up and jog around the block to release the stress hormones from your system. When you’re supposed to be writing a white paper that’s due in the morning, you don’t exactly have time to go to the gym for a workout. This is where freewriting can save the day.
When you actively write by keeping your hand moving across the page without stopping, it acts as a trigger, a release, much like taking a walk or going for a run when you’re upset. It actually helps unlock the blood flow and allows it to return to the cortex so you can once again think, engaging your brain fully again. But there is a caveat.
Most Important Rule of Freewriting
In order for freewriting to work, it requires that you follow the rule of writing without rules. Some people have a terrible time with this. I have watched a few of my adult students in workshops struggle mightily with the notion that they must keep the pen moving past the errors. They can’t seem to relax about ignoring the spelling mistakes, and they feel strange not using proper punctuation.
When you actively write by keeping your hand moving across the page without stopping, it unlocks the blood flow so you can once again think.Click To Tweet
This is exactly what you must do, however. You must keep writingno matter what. If you stop for any reason, like to scratch your nose, to add the comma, to mull over ideas, to scribble out a word you thought was too dirty for your nice pretty prose…you will ruin the purpose of the task. It is FREEwriting, not an edited essay you plan to turn in for a grade.
This is not meant for eyes other than your own, unless you choose to share it. In fact, when you finish with it, you are welcome to throw it away if you can’t bear to read it. Nothing will happen if you write badly. In fact, I encourage the worst ever writing when freewriting for any reason. The worse it is, the better your good writing will become.
Let out the demons in the freewriting, get past the surface thoughts about chores, that neighbor you wish would park properly on the street, and whether or not you fed the dog, and eventually your brain will drop down into the deeper reasons for why you can’t get past the first line or the title of your story. You’ll learn a great deal about your deeper thoughts when you set the surface thoughts wild and free.
In order for freewriting to work its most astonishing magic, allow yourself to write whatever comes into your head, and practice it often. I use freewriting all the time to help myself generate ideas for stories, figure out my moods, and help myself overcome difficult times in my life. It’s an invaluable tool if you can learn to really allow yourself to let go of perfection and just be disorganized and wacky. Sometimes your brain needs that, especially when you are creating. The creative side of your brain thrives on freedom from rules, and if you feed it regularly with letting go, you will find your creativity will flow much more readily, even when you aren’t using the freewriting.
Give Freewriting a Try!
For those who may be concerned about practicing writing without rules and what it will do to your grammar, don’t worry. Freewriting will not erase all your grammar knowledge any more than watching television. I always encourage people to read about freewriting from the original masters—Peter and Natalie—but to also do their own exploring.
See what happens when you try freewriting for things outside of just your writing needs, and discover the infinite depth of your creative mind. No matter how you use it, freewriting can unlock your inspiration anytime you need it, and can open the door to more ideas than you can even begin to imagine. Just remember, keep the pen moving!
About the Author: When Elaine isn’t busily typing her latest novel or blog post, she’s probably on a trail in the middle of nowhere, or possibly singing and playing guitar with a bunch of crazy musicians…or she may even be making a mosaic art diorama out of magazines. It’s also possible Elaine is standing on a desk, wildly gesticulating to make a fervent point while teaching, usually handing out chocolate to bribe students into telling friends and family what fun they had learning to write. You may contact Elaine about teaching workshops, speaking about writing, utilize her as a writing coach, or hire her as a copywriter at www.elainersnyder.com. She might leave footprints on your desk, but she will also leave you chocolate.
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