Image: Matthew Loffhagen
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.
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.
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.