“I love it. I do it every single morning while I’m still in bed…”
“The most difficult thing I’ve been asked to do in a writing class…”
“I have no idea what happened then, but that was amazing…”
I’ve heard all those comments about this strategy for writers. It has been given so many names – flow writing– automatic writing – hot penning – stream of consciousness – but I’ve always called it freewriting, because I like the way that title describes what should happen when you try this out; you should feel freed, emboldened, invigorated.
This technique has been recommended by so many writers, especially those who have published ‘how to write’ books, (such as Writing down the Bones, Natelie Goldberg, Shambhala Publications, – Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande, Tarcher, 1981 – Writing for Self Discovery, John Killick and Myra Schneinder, Element Books 1998), and yet still I meet students who don’t practice this technique on a regular basis.
In Part One of Writing Skills, the first OCA course most creative writing students embark on, you’re shown and recommended the technique, but I know most students find it difficult at first and soon give up.
I believe this is because freewriting, when explained, sounds like a set of rules. This convinces the student that they will find automatic success if they follow the rules, and become disillusioned when this doesn’t happen immediately. The course materials are careful to only offer ‘guidelines’, but it’s often hard not to take that list of ‘do’s and don’t’s’ too seriously.
Freewriting should simply encourage you to feel and do certain things in respect of your writing life, which include:
- ENJOY WRITING
- FEEL ABLE TO WRITE FREELY ABOUT WHATEVER COMES INTO YOUR MIND
- WRITE DOWN YOUR THOUGHTS
- BUILD A COLLECTION OF SNIPPETS AND PAGES TO ADD TO YOUR ARMOURY
Free-writing is not about rules, or even guidelines. It’s about a freedom that comes when writing can simply be enjoyed.
Just play with this for a few moment. Grab a pen and paper (which shouldn’t be far from your hand…you’re a writer, don’t forget…) and make notes on how you feel about enjoying your writing.
Write freely, airing your thoughts as they come into your mind. Any words, any subject…the sweepings at the back of your mind will be fine.
Write for as long as you like, but as soon as your pen flounders, return to this blogpost – for now, don’t read it through.
Notice that I didn’t give you a single do or don’t because rules are inhibitors and I didn’t want to stifle you. But there are guidelines to freewriting, which will help you establish this practice in the form of a daily exercise that frees up the imagination and taps into the deepest levels of your thought processes.
‘The Guidelines’, such as they are, as thus;
- Choose a topic that will interest and encourage you
- It doesn’t matter if the topic changes or disappears. It doesn’t matter what you write
- Once you start writing, you must not stop. You must not lay down your pen at all. If you run out of things to say, write anything (…I can’t think of what to say, what shall I write, what shall I write…) any repetitive phrase until you get going again (it won’t be long)
- Do not stop to correct your work. Don’t correct spellings, grammar, punctuation or the proper sequence of events. Try not to cross things out
- Use description to get going. If you have any trouble starting, try describing what is directly in front of you – be as prosaic as you wish – until some thoughts come into your mind.
- Use memory, thought processes and associations to keep writing; e.g, your subject was ‘sky’ and you began describing the way the sky looks from your window. Then a memory of lying on your back watching the clouds came to you, but as you wrote about that, you remember what you did directly before or after watching the clouds, so you write about that, and as you do so, you get interested in writing more about the people you were with.
- When memory runs out, make stuff up.
- Remember, as you write, that none of this need see the light of day. The reason you never need to stop writing, is because it really doesn’t matter what you write. Later, you can discard the stuff you don’t want to keep.
- At first, set an alarm for five minutes, or tell yourself you must reach a point on the page, or word count on your screen. As it gets easier, extend the time you spend to a maximum of about 20 minutes.
- Resist the urge to start structuring your writing. This is not the place to create a narrative.
- However, play with words and thoughts as much as you like.
- Eventually, you will read this work. Try using a highlighter to outline the parts you think are worthy of going back to.
Still got that pen and paper to hand? Here are two handy tips that you should note down (not rules! Honest!).
1. Decide how you’re going to fit the freewriting strategy into your writing routine.
The best time to write is without doubt at the start of your day. If you can use the technique when you first wake up in the morning, you’ll find it particularly surprising. Your mind is totally open, almost still in the dream state of sleep, and by writing in this half-trance state, you lift the lid to your internal world.
Alternatively, you can make freewriting the start to your writing routine. It gets the writing muscles working before you start anything else.
Freewriting can also be slotted into a working day. If you take public transport to work, you can use the notepad facility on your phone to spend the journey wrapped in a brown study of your own thoughts. Or take 15 minutes out of your lunch break.
2. Complete a short list of subjects that might stimulate a freewrite.
Having a pre-chosen list to hand enables you to steal a march on yourself. Once you have drawn up a list of topics ahead of time, you immediately prevent your mind going blank and ‘writers’ block’ taking over as you sit to write. This is the only time I will be encouraging you to use abstract nouns – they make good headings.
However, don’t take ages agonising over your list. Write the first things that come to you – flip through the pages of any book to find single words and little phrases that catch the eye.
If you have a project, such as a story you’re working on, then feel free to use this for your headings. Single, focused words such as a character’s name, a place setting, or a theme can really help, because with freewriting, you’re free to write any silly thing that comes into your head.
So now turn back to the freewrite you did earlier. Read it through. You might feel self-conscious, the first time you do this. Okay, some this may feel like junk, but that’s okay, because you gave yourself permission to write rubbish. The results aren’t supposed to be lyrical, but there might be flashes of bright ideas, or ‘golden nuggets‘ hidden among the dross. Even if there is nothing worth keeping, freewriting limbers you up, demonstrating that you really can write to will. Freewriting also helps overcome those blockages as you push through self-criticism. You’ll learn to let go.
Freewriting is not often enjoyable…or very free…the first time you try it. Which is why you have to give it a proper go. Try it for a week, and I think you’ll find you won’t want to stop.