Good Old Freewriting

I think Peter Elbow’s great book Writing Without Teachers was the first place I encountered a rationale for freewriting. Freewriting’s a really useful technology for academic writers in particular.

The how of freewriting is very simple: You set a timer, usually for quite a short time (5-7 minutes) and write without stopping, editing, reading what you’ve written, or making any corrections. It’s useful to cover the screen of your computer so that you actually cannot see what you’re writing, or to experiment with writing long-hand, or writing long-hand with your non-dominant hand.

  • The simplest form of freewriting is just to write whatever comes up for the set time, reading it afterwards gently and without judgement, and turning the page or deleting the file.
  • The slightly more elaborated form is to take a word or phrase and repeat it over and over if nothing is coming to mind until you jump out of the groove you’re in: “I’m thinking about I’m thinking about I’m thinking about…”
  • The more elaborated than that form is to take a key word or concept you’re working with our struggling on, and repeat it until something bumps up: “Bad kin is bad kin is bad kin is…”. With this form, you can go back, gently reading, and underline phrases that emerged that were interesting or generative and use them as key words or phrases that you repeat over and over for another freewrite.

When I’m guiding freewriting sessions in classes, I always start with the totally open, simplest version and then go into a more directed version. This seems important to the process. It’s also workable to do just the simplest version for five minutes and then go into regular writing.

The why of freewriting is more complex. I’ve seen a bunch of good effects of it, some of which make sense and others of which are kind of mysterious but real:

  1. It helps us disaggregate our creative self from our editorial self – both are really important, but because of the layers of pressure we academics have put on writing and ourselves as writers, we often try to edit at the same time as we’re writing. This shuts us down, and freewriting gives our creative self practice at saying to our editor self, “I really love you and think you’re important, but I need you to step back a bit so that I can generate some material for you to hone and refine. Could you stand over there for a while, and I promise I’ll bring you back in soon?”; it gives our editor self practice stepping back, based on affirmation that it is important and loved and that its care-giving in the form of critique and refinement is appreciated and trust that it will be invited back in when appropriate. Freewriting is like fighting with bamboo swords; you practice the moves and relationships in a safe-enough space.
  2. Freewriting is automatically successful. Did you write some gibberish for five minutes? You win! It’s a good productive procrastination strategy because it is a very low bar for doing some writing. You can almost always say, “I obviously can’t write my dissertation but I can ramble without editing for five minutes about my tea and my cat.”
  3. For some reason, even freewriting gibberish makes writing feel easier. This doesn’t really make sense but it’s true.
  4. Freewriting gives a palpable sense of the abundance of our writing. Usually we can write 200-500 words in seven minutes. They’re not, like, good sentences or very interesting, but there are a lot of them.
  5. Freewriting tunes us into a kind of vitality and directness that sometimes surprises us and allows us to see something about what we’re thinking that we didn’t know was there.
  6. Directed freewriting puts something on the page, so that you’re not writing into a blank sheet. This is very soothing, even if you just delete it later.
  7. It’s nice to have a form of writing that you don’t share with people – having this clarifies the difference between writing for ourselves and writing for others.

Anyhow, good old freewriting. I recommend it.

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