‘Free Writing’ Can Help You Finish Your Book. Here’s How - A writer types incredibly quickly, their computer bouncing off the table.

‘Free Writing’ Can Help You Finish Your Book. Here’s How

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Free writing is a popular technique that can help you brainstorm, break through writer’s block, exercise your writing muscles, and get in the zone for less free-form work. By writing for a set period without concern for spelling, grammar, structure, or even subject, you can strip away the doubts and niggles that hold your writing back, and adopting this technique could even help you finish your book.

That’s why, in today’s article, I’ll be looking at all the benefits free writing can offer authors, as well as how you can implement it in your own writer’s toolbox.

What is free writing?

Free writing is rapid-fire, judgment-free writing. Here’s how to do it.

Settle into a distraction-free environment – for some of us, this may mean writing on paper or putting our children or cats in another room. I prefer typing for free writing, but that’s because I’m fast on the keyboard and I don’t like the reluctant drag of hand-writing to slow me down. I also made the recent decision to eschew internet in my home. Productivity levels have gone up by about 1000%. For others, the computer may be a gateway to distraction and WiFi may need to be turned off to facilitate your success. (Software that focuses your attention is also available.)

Set a timer and write until time’s up. The rule for this time frame is: how much time do you have? Ten minutes? Great. Thirty? Awesome. Do nothing else while the timer ticks.

Write, uncensored, until the timer stops. If all you can think of at first is…

I have nothing to say, I have nothing to say, I have nothing to say, I’m bored, my thigh itches, when was the last time I vacuumed this room anyway? Do I still smell like Head & Shoulders? Why are storm clouds green? I think I should get a dog. The whole world can write better than I can what what what what what am I supposed to write this book is impossible I want a shot of Scotch and a bag of potato chips, maybe my main character is too happy.

…then write that. This isn’t meant to be productive in terms of content. It isn’t meant to be quality writing. So don’t edit, aim for logical flow, or try to impress the Nobody who’s ever going to read this outpouring. This isn’t brainstorming or mind-mapping. It’s disorganized, messy, and quick. Keep writing even if your mind is blank. The process is productive because it facilitates the mind-body connection that forms during writing and unlocks the translation of thoughts into words.

When you’re done, you can go in a number of directions depending on how you feel. You can leave the writing to percolate for a while and go take a walk. You can extract any useful tidbits and start putting them to work. You can shift gears and do some serious writing if that’s where you feel the process has led you. You can keep the stream of consciousness flowing if that feels right. You can shred any evidence of your free writing if you want to avoid posthumous humiliation.

Exercises in free writing

Free writing is a versatile technique, and there are many ways to tweak it to serve your specific needs. Play around with the free-writing exercises below to see what works for you.

Single-word idea generation

Start with a single word. Write it (or type it) again and again, maybe twenty times or a hundred until the repetition inspires an idea. Unleash the idea, and follow it wherever it leads.

Single-word word association

Start with a single word. Play word-association with it, writing other words, phrases, sentences, or ideas that it brings to mind. Keep your fingers moving, and don’t stop until your timer says you can.

Idea free-flow

Start with an idea. It might be one word, a sentence, a topic, or a part of your book you’re struggling with. Write it down, stare at it for at least thirty seconds. Begin writing. Say anything you want to about it:

I hate this book, I hate this book, I hate this book, I suck as a writer, I’m a superhero writer, this chapter’s disorganized, this chapter’s a drag, this chapter’s going nowhere, this chapter needs to take me to Berlin, this chapter this chapter this chapter Berlin Berlin Berlin, should’ve taken German in high school, maybe I need to read more German authors – highlight that – what if the chain letter originated in Berlin, no that’s stupid, I’m still allowed to say that here. I’m allowed to say whatever I want. Wait a minute, Berlin. That’s not write right write right. Andreas needs to get to Denmark, that’s better. God, I’d like to go to Denmark.

The source

If you are writing about a particular setting and can get to that location, go. Sit in the space. Write. Take several free writing sessions to say and feel and dream and immerse yourself in that setting. If you can’t get to your setting (financially speaking, or it’s not real, or it existed 20,000 years ago,) find some visual and scent stimuli to ‘take you there’ and complete the same exercise. Imagine everything you can about the setting. Do not edit yourself. You can do this later.

Somebody else’s headspace

You can complete the setting exercise with a character, or better yet: free write as that character. Take some time to assume the persona of one of your characters, looking through their character profile or re-reading their scenes and dialogue. Become the character and begin writing. As soon as you find yourself saying, “I don’t feel like so-and-so,” who cares – keep going. This is a judgment-free zone. You’re getting to know yourself – your real self and your adopted persona.

Narrative free flow

Sit down to write a chapter or section of your actual project and remove all expectations and rules. Don’t try to make anything sound good. Don’t try to keep things chronological. Don’t try to be logical or engaging or searingly insightful. Leave all your typos and misspellings and misgivings in place. Let the chapter emerge in its raw, ugly, wriggling form. You can pretty it up later.

Email to [email protected]

Compose a non-email to no-one to express the challenges you are facing with your current project. This might turn into a total gripe fest, and that’s okay. I find it’s helpful to open an actual email draft (address it to yourself, your BFF, your spouse, or [email protected] if it helps to do so.) Let ’er rip.

How can free writing help me finish my ‘real’ writing project?

Free writing gets you in the right head space for writing. Sometimes, the physical process of writing (even writing nothing) acts as a cue to stimulate the creative flow.

None of the material you produce during free writing has to be salvaged for your project, but if you find something useful during a re-read, by all means: use it. Free writing can liberate ideas that were stuck due to self-censorship or the burden of writing well. The Beat writers and stream-of-consciousness progenitors knew that structure, expectation, and style can dam up the creative process. Their stupored writing habits helped them breach the dam and release the trapped river. Stream of consciousness doesn’t have to be the end goal, as it was for these innovative authors – it can be a tool for finding focus, pinning down elusive ideas, sparking novelty, and generating ingenuity.

If you watch children play, you’ll notice that the more they watch TV, the more they interact with their peers, the more they develop ethical and cultural habits – the less variegated and unique their imaginative worlds become. They begin to develop themes and defaults based on their exposure and ever-crystallizing expectations. So tap into your youngest self, the least-fettered, least-censored you – the you who is not trying to impress or sell or succeed. The you who can imagine anything, if only you stop trying so hard.

Have you tried free writing? What were the results? Will you try any of the exercises described above? I look forward to finding out in the comments, and you can check out 4 Creative Writing Exercises That Will Improve Your Craft and 40 Exercises And Resources Every Author Needs for more practical tools for improving your craft.

6 thoughts on “‘Free Writing’ Can Help You Finish Your Book. Here’s How”

  1. Rebecca, Thank you for this article! I tried it and wrote 550 words in twelve minutes, and those words halfway made sense. Maybe if I’d been an English major, somewhere along the way a teacher would have recommended this technique, but I wasn’t. Your article has convinced me I can be a prolific author, not just a plodding writer. Thanks again for the brain explosion.
    Here is my work with no corrections: Maybe free writing will help me wait. I hate waiting. It is the bane of my existence. It always feels like I’m burning through my most valuable resource: time. What else can’t be replenished? What else can’t be worked for and nurtured to last longer. If I waste it, it is gone.
    When I stand in line for a grocery checker, I watch their movements. My mind is whirring with a hundred ways he or she could do it faster. But why would they? The checker is consigned to a specified time, doing a specified task, for a specified amount of money. What would be their hurry. They start out the day knowing their time will be burned earning a living, and angry looks from customers like me, don’t bother them a whit.
    So why am I so preoccupied with time? I honestly don’t know. Maybe it’s the games I play in my mind. The same one’s I’ve been playing my entire life or as long as I can remember. How fast can I climb these monkey bars? Can I beat the other kids to the top? Can I run across the blacktop playground and get to the other side before my friends? Can I be first in line to reenter the school and be free of the interminable cold that is an Indiana winter?
    Perhaps, I am simply competitive. Born with a drive to be best. Wasting time does allow anyone to be the best at anything. Interesting though, my competitive streak always failed me when it came to the actual work of school. Mostly when the teacher was droning on, explaining a concept the fourth time, one I got the first time around, all I wanted to do was check out. Close my eyes and drift into blissful slumber. Why would I want to waste my time sleeping though?
    Since actual sleeping was a taboo activity, and it could almost be guaranteed to result in a startling awakening either by a teacher’s rap on the desk via ruler, or the other kids humiliating me in a way only grade school children can humiliate, I did the next best thing: created stories in my head. I checked out in a different way.
    All along I was preparing myself to be a writer and didn’t know it. The stories in my head were sad, exciting, sentimental, and fun. They never ended badly for me and I was always the main character. It could be that the Jennifer, the little blond girl that all the boys liked and I envied was embarrassed by a boy she liked, or the teacher was overwhelmed with my genius at solving word problems in math. That word problem thing was true. The problems she gave were so simple a moron could figure it out. No effort required, except that all but one other boy in the class seemed to struggle to make sense of words that were really math. To me everything is math.
    Time is math. You start with an unknown quantity and every second is one less second of your life. Every second is a second you could be doing something other than listening to a teacher explain the same damn thing for the tenth time.
    I just wrote 550 words in twelve minutes. Now that is math!

  2. Rebecca Langley

    Hi, Nancy.

    Fantastic application, and thank you so much for sharing it! I love that you got right down to it. And yes, the words are coherent. So whatever you want to write about now: go forth and do likewise. 🙂

    The relationship between words and math is fascinating, isn’t it? Both tell stories. I think people get intimidated by one or the other and have to learn to see their interconnectivity in the world.

    Thanks again for chiming in here. I wish you luck as you continue to find the writer in you.

  3. Rosamund Clancy

    I did the free writing straight after reading your article and as I had uppermost in my mind the problem of a minor character needing a bit of a tweak, I wrote from his point of view. It was one run-on paragraph that was of bitsy information about him and his thoughts. I then had a clear enough idea of who he was to edit my story to have him coming across more fully. I did not add a lot but what I did was strong.
    I was the characters with big parts and felt their world through their eyes but he had been seen from an external viewpoint. He ticked all the right boxes for what a minor character should be doing as far as his function in the story. I had not really given him a weak character but needed to underline his motives and show he was a worthwhile person.
    Thank you

    1. Rebecca Langley

      Hi, Rosamund.

      I’m so glad you found the exercise helpful and were able to add a little depth to this character. Thanks for letting me know how the article supported your writing. I appreciate the feedback!

      Best wishes,
      Rebecca

  4. This is hands down the most interesting, informative, instructive and genious blog I have yet read!! I’m not a professional writer, I work and write for a hobby. Whether I ever get published is not my end-game. Though it is a minor goal.
    I have been under the pre-misconception that everything I put down must be on its way to perfection.
    Free writing seems like a perfect way to brainstorm and see what pops up. It is next in my ‘how to’ effort. Thanks so much!!
    I’ve been stymied for months, 🙁

    1. Greg, thank you so much for your kind words. I am really pleased to know you found some inspiration here and hope you will find the free writing exercise…well, freeing. Let me know how it goes!

      Best wishes,
      Rebecca Langley

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