Unleash Your Creativity Now: How to Freewrite

by Joel Friedlander on April 20, 2010 · 44 comments

thebookdesigner.com describes freewriting for creativityI started writing as a freshman at SUNY Buffalo quite a while ago. The coolest kids I knew were in English, and the coolest of them all seemed to be writers. That’s where I wanted to be.

But once I went to work I wrote only institutional copy for many years. Instructional manuals, sales letters, fundraising copy, that sort of thing.

This kind of writing was pretty bad for me. I wanted to be a creative writer, and I felt like I had something to say. But writing institutional copy seemed to crush the spirit. It brought into the act of writing a lot of things that had no business there, where the imagination ought to rule.

Time passed. The dream of writing seemed permanently lodged in a locked drawer in a cabinet stuffed in the basement somewhere.

One year I determined to keep a journal, something I had always resisted. I just didn’t understand what journals were for, or why the habit of writing in them was useful. Many writers swear by their journals, use them as raw material for characters, scenes, settings, or ideas they want to work on. All I could see was an obligation, another thing to check off my to-do list.

For a year I sat late at night in the living room and wrote. To be honest, the only time I’ve looked at that journal since then was to dig up some great recipes for garbanzo bean dip. I didn’t see anything else there, just each day’s events and an occasional a note about the emotional tone in the house. It seemed pointless.

Freewriting and the Underground Spring

A few years ago Jill and I stumbled into a writing class and learned how to freewrite. In freewriting, you write just fast enough so that your hand moves faster than your brain can defend itself.

The results are sometimes unpredictable, but the most surprising images, characters, memories and stories started to pour out onto the page. Where was it coming from? I was mystified, and stunned. Somehow this practice had connected to that deep stream of creativity we all have running, somewhere deep underground, and allowed it to manifest in writing.

I was grateful. Something I thought I had lost long ago suddenly appeared, better than new, right in front of me on the page of a cheap notebook I got at Rite-Aid for that first class. Partly in gratitude, I made up a set of instructions on this terrific tool. Here it is, and there’s a link at the end if you’d like to download a PDF version of it.

How to Freewrite

What is freewriting?

  • Freewriting is a practice that helps to liberate your writer’s voice and connects you to the vibrant stream of creativity that lies just under the surface of our ordinary thinking.
  • Freewriting can be used to launch you over a writer’s block, to explore painful emotional memories, and to work out problems in a longer work. It can be used for making contact with one’s own unconscious.
  • Freewriting is a simple, structured practice that is flexible and forgiving. It can be used as the base of a writing practice, or spontaneously whenever you want to go deeper into a subject.

A good way to learn freewriting is through a 10-minute timed write.

When we freewrite, we try as much as possible to suspend judgment about what we are writing. It is an exercise in getting out of our own way. You may notice you are writing in a way that is unacceptable or foreign to what you are accustomed to. Try to simply observe the process rather than interrupt it.

Here are some freewriting guidelines, although in the spirit of freewriting freedom, feel free to not follow any that don’t feel right.

  • Use a prompt. If you run out of ideas before the time is up, start writing the prompt and see if a new thought arises. Go with it.
  • Set a timer. Having a reliable timer will free you from being drawn away from what you are writing. If you are moved to, continue writing after the time has expired until you complete your thought.
  • Keep your pen moving. Don’t stop writing until the timer goes off.
  • Write quickly. Write a little bit faster than your thought formation, even if it’s a little uncomfortable. Messy handwriting is welcome.
  • Use the first word. Don’t try to think of the perfect word, just use the first word that comes to mind and go with it. Don’t worry about paragraphing, subject-verb agreement or even if what you are writing makes sense. Just write.
  • Write crap. Give yourself permission to write a really bad first draft. You can always edit it later, but this permission allows you to do something new. Try to avoid any thoughts about what you are writing. You are just there to propel the pen. Telling yourself it’s okay to write crappy first drafts is incredibly liberating. Try it.
  • Go for it. If the first thing that pops into your mind is ridiculous, go for it. If it’s violent, see where it goes. Be open to the unexpected. After all, you didn’t create these thoughts, did you? Our job is to honor them, allow them to come to light.

Going Longer With Your Freewrites

You can also use a meta-freewrite technique to explore longer works. Look at what you’ve written. If a question is generated when you read it, or you are looking for a solution to a problem you see, use it as a prompt for your freewrite. Keep using it, and the questions it generates, to ask yourself to go deeper into the subject. Be open to what comes up.

Crafting prompts can be good fun, and the simplest prompts sometimes reveal the deepest veins of meaning in our stories. If you’ve written something you would like to explore, use a prompt like “What this story really means…” or “What I really want to say is …” to get at a deeper meaning.

A prompt from Natalie Goldberg that can help with your personal history explorations is “I remember…” Continue to write what comes to your memory and every time you hesitate, write again “I remember …” and start again.

Prospect for stories using prompts like “The most scared I ever got was when…” or “I first time I met …” or “The most momentous trip of my life was…” or “When I was a kid we…”

If you want to develop something you’re writing, look for prompts within the writing itself. What jumps out at you? What has “juice” for you when you read it? There’s your next prompt. Put it at the top of your page and go for it.

Freewriting Resources

Suzanne Murray’s website, blog and writings
Wikihow’s Freewriting article
Freewriting Instruction from a teacher at Missouri S & T
Writing Coach Sarah’s terrific freewriting course
Download my Freewriting.PDF instruction sheet

If you know of more web-based freewriting resources I’d love to add them to my list. Thanks!

Takeaway: The practice of freewriting—spontaneous, fast timed writing to a prompt—can yield big benefits in releasing your writing from blocks and restrictions, and open you to a new world of creativity.

Image: Flickr.com / lipár

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    { 27 comments… read them below or add one }

    Charlie April 20, 2010 at 3:57 am

    Good stuff. I’m sure it’s something I need to try. I’ve got a timer. I’ve got notebooks. I’ve got pens. I’ve got time. Just do it.

    Reply

    Leanne April 20, 2010 at 10:10 am

    Thank you for this. I have tried this technique. I didn’t know what it was called but I have tried it. And it does work.

    Reply

    Joel April 20, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Charlie, you’ve got it. And you only need 10 minutes. You’ve got 10 minutes, right?

    Leanne, probably different people call this technique by different names, but the results are the same. Glad to hear it works for you.

    Reply

    Marisa Birns April 20, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Have the pen and notebook, now to get a timer.

    Thank you for this. I will try it. :)

    Reply

    BubbleCow April 20, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    Love the ‘write crap’ comment. I often ask writers to split the process of ‘getting words onto the page’ and ‘editing the words to make sense’ into two distinct processes. e.g. Write crap and then polish!

    Reply

    Joel April 21, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Marisa, that’s the idea. I bet you’ll like it. The secret to this technique is not to judge what you’re writing, to just let go. Good luck!

    Gary, I think you’ve taken it to the next level—”Write crap and then polish!” Love that.

    Reply

    essie spencer April 21, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Sounds like a great technique although I think you should add a new guideline: be prepared to bin the lot! This follows on from the comment “Write crap and then polish” because, you know, sometimes you just can’t polish a turd:)

    Reply

    Joel April 21, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    LoL Essie, you got that right! Yes, you have to be willing to toss it if it’s just crap. It’s like priming a pump, sometimes you get some dirty water at first that has to be cleared out before the beautiful, clear water from that deep spring comes out. Thanks for stopping by!

    Reply

    Tammi Kibler May 25, 2010 at 10:28 am

    I love freewriting, especially now that I’ve started freewriting directly in my word processor. I set a timer, turn off the monitor and just let go. I am getting as close as I can to thinking right on the page and catching every thought before the censor interferes.

    @essie – no, you can’t polish crap, but I am amazed at how lucid my freewriting is once I run a spell check on it. With this technique I am pouring complete thoughts on the page without second guessing my tenses, construction, etc. And though it may seem counter intuitive, the crap isn’t as bad as the some of the stuff I agonize over outside of my freewriting sessions.

    I recommend freewriting for any project. After the mind map, I freewrite, spell check, and WOW there’s a rough draft ready to put in the drawer and perfect tomorrow.

    Works for me.

    Write on!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 25, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Hi Tammi, that’s interesting. I just started doing something similar. After several years of filling up composition books, I decided to try freewriting on my iPad. I have the wireless keyboard, so I just set the iPad down a couple of feet away and start typing. It works really well! Not being able to see the text seemed to free me. I write faster and don’t have to face that dreaded “gotta enter these into Word” problem. Thanks for your thought.

    Reply

    Catana September 4, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    Freewriting helped break me out of the formality of article writing. Even better, it freed me up for fiction, which I’d convinced myself I was incapable of writing. Out of crap spring beautiful flowers.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 4, 2010 at 11:10 pm

    That’s beautiful, Catana, thanks so much for sharing.

    Reply

    Elissa September 4, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    I blogged about free-writing back in 2005:
    http://hurricanecountry.blogspot.com/2005/07/getting-it-on-page.html

    I also carry my journal notebook wherever I go. I whip it out and free-write or brainstorm in waiting rooms, on grocery lines, in fast food joints, on planes/trains/automobiles/boats, on park benches, when an idea hits me in the middle of a walk — you get the idea. It’s my “raw data,” and it ranges from absolute crap to stuff that’s found publication.

    Don’t have 10 minutes? No problem. Take 5 minutes. Take 2 minutes. The simple act of moving a pen on paper has the power to unblock, because you have already started the writing process.

    I also take the Love Your Crap approach, because I write scads of it:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/30268343@N00/2617028747/

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 4, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    Thanks, Elissa. I’m also a big Natalie Goldberg fan, and recently worked though all the prompts in her book about writing memoir. I also write a lot in my car in those odd moments in the day which pop up regularly. Thanks for your visit.

    Reply

    Cari Hislop January 5, 2011 at 3:48 am

    I came across this basic idea in The Artist Way by Julia Cameron. That book saved my sanity. She prescribed writing three pages a day every morning stream of conscious to clear the brain of cluttering thoughts. So the version I do is like a journal only whatever comes into my head and if I get stuck on a word I write it however many times until my thoughts flow into something else. These days my hand goes numb when writing longhand so I write on the computer, but I haven’t been doing it…thanks for the article…I know I NEED to be doing it. It is amazing how ideas show up on the page like magic! I do keep my ramblings…it’s like having a piece of my brain in a jar! I think I’m going to go do some free writing now and maybe later today I’ll be able to work on my book. That would be productive!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 5, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    Cari, I’m so glad you got something from this article. Freewriting repays all the time I’ve put into it, and more. I’m glad you went of to write!

    Reply

    Kevin February 8, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    Free writing is great, I bring my laptop and a notebook or two just about everywhere I go. At this point when I don’t have a pen in my pocket I feel like many people do when they don’t remember to wear their wrist watch.

    With my Droid I often use it as a voice recorder for times when I can’t get to my laptop or a piece of paper but I have something nibbling on my brain that has to come out.

    Thanks for the article, it was great!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander February 8, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    Hey Kevin, I started using the voice recorder on my iPhone a few months ago and it’s a great tool when you can’t stop and write. The other day, driving over the Golden Gate bridge I remembered this teacher I had in high school and actually recorded a complete 5 minute piece on my memories of her, it was great. Thanks for stopping by.

    Reply

    Caethes Faron March 4, 2011 at 11:36 am

    If I’m stuck in a rut of just writing crap, and I don’t want to stink up my WIP anymore, I’ll take a break to freewrite. It’s amazing what’s come out of it. Afterward I can usually jump back into my WIP and the writing just flows better.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 4, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Thanks for that Caethes, that’s a great way to use freewriting.

    Reply

    Emanuel Williams April 20, 2011 at 6:28 am

    I didn’t know “Freewriting” existed prior to stumbling across your website today. I guess the word “Free” initially grabbed my attention and attaching it to the word “writing” captured my attention long enough for me to read and find informatively interesting several of the posted comments. I’m convinced, as the result of discovering your website, that I have found the correct method for initializing a book about a profound experience I’ve gone through over the past ten years….thank you.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 20, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    Good luck with your book, Emanuel, and thanks for stopping by.

    Reply

    Julia Ray January 9, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    I enjoyed this article as well as several others of yours. I have taken notes and going to try them. I have been writing on a site that challenges you every day and only yourself sees it. I use it as note taking for my writing and as a journal. I will try some of this in there. It is 750words.com. Thanks for the tips.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 11, 2013 at 11:40 am

    Thanks, Julia. 750words.com looks like a great site, I’m going to try it myself.

    Reply

    Julia Ray January 11, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Awesome. :)

    Reply

    Al April 7, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Nice article Joel.
    I recognised some time ago that the physical act of writing often stands as a barrier to free-flowing creativity. As my typing is not fast enough to outpace my brain (I still hunt and peck), I tried a speech to text approach, and found a significant difference in style and lucidity. This was especially true with dialogue. The strange looks that I get from passing boats, as I sit in the cockpit arguing with the compass binnacle, seemed a small price…

    Reply

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