Freewriting is a skill that belongs in every writer’s toolkit. Writers use it to bypass resistance and get words down fast. Freewriting can help you tap into your most creative thoughts, increase your productivity, and improve your writing.
Educators have found that freewriting works well in the classroom as a prewriting technique and for writers who are not geared toward linear thinking. Freed from the constraints of the commonly taught linear framework of writing, student writers are better able to express their ideas.
Actual practices of freewriting can vary. It’s generally practiced as fast, nonstop writing, similar to braindumping, that disregards normal writing conventions. You can set a time limit, such as 10 or 20 minutes, or just write until you feel like stopping. You can also use a prompt, or just write what comes to your mind. Anyone can apply the concept and develop their twist on freewriting.
Approaches to freewriting
An excellent guide to modern freewriting is the book Accidental Genius, Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight and Content, by Mark Levy. The 28 chapters are full of anecdotes and examples of using freewriting in many different and creative ways. Accidental Genius was published in 2010, but it was not the first book to unpack the benefits of freewriting.
Freewriting is also the main focus of a pivotal book on creative writing, Writing Down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg, published in 1986. The 30th Anniversary Edition of Bones came out in 2016, a testament to the enduring impact of this book. Goldberg calls her method simply “writing practice.” The number one rule of writing practice, however, is the same as freewriting: “keep your hand moving,” that is, don’t stop to read or edit and don’t stop writing for the full timed interval.
The two books, though they advocate a similar technique, are completely different. Levy’s book is the first book to advocate freewriting for developing business ideas, solving business problems and general brainstorming. Goldberg’s method in Writing Down the Bones is focused entirely on using freewriting as writing practice for the purpose of learning to write creatively in the genres of fiction, essays and memoir.
In between Goldberg’s Bones and Levy’s Genius, several books about journaling have promoted freewriting for exploratory writing. Though freewriting and journaling are not the same, it does apply more generally as a way of writing without constraints in a mode of discovery and personal self-expression.
According to WritersDigest.com, the goal of freewriting is to “move from conscious, deliberate writing to automatic, subconscious writing.” That might be a loftier goal than most people who practice freewriting have, but if you don’t labor over your words and can get inspiration from your subconscious instead, you will naturally write more quickly and authentically.
History of freewriting
Freewriting may have had its roots in the automatic writing mediumship of nineteenth century spiritualists. In a trance state, mediums would do automatic writing as a way to receive messages from the spirit world.
Freewriting also has some origins in the 1950s’ experimental novels by Jack Kerouac. Kerouac wrote his famous novel On the Road in a spontaneous, improvisational style as if writing a letter to a friend. He was influenced by the beat culture which eschewed convention and likened his writing to jazz improvisation.
Kerouac outlined his method of spontaneous writing in an article, Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, published in 1957. He later expanded on it with a list of 30 pithy statements titled Belief and Technique of Modern Prose.
In “Techniques,” Kerouac said writers should remain unfettered by stylistic conventions and “remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition.” He promoted writing in a trance-like state in order to express ideas without censorship from the conscious mind.
Kerouac’s sketchy outlines on spontaneous prose read a bit like a rant and poetry at the same time. He rejects punctuation which he felt interfered with the natural rhythm of a writer’s thinking. Kerouac wanted to remove all constraints from his writing so he could write directly from his stream of consciousness.
In his subsequent novel The Subterraneans, Kerouac expounds his belief that in writing “the details are the life of everything on your mind, don’t hold back, don’t analyze anything as you go along,” which sounds a lot like how we practice freewriting today.
Natalie Goldberg acknowledges Kerouac’s influence on her work in her book, The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life.
English professor Peter Elbow is also considered a pioneer of freewriting. His book Writing Without Teachers written in 1975 promotes freewriting and advised writers to write and not stop for anything. His books and classes made freewriting popular as a pedagogical technique.
The creative process and freewriting
The main theme of these freestyle approaches to writing is to unleash creativity. Creativity requires a free flow of original ideas, which is antithetical to the linear production model of modern society that has produced more linear and formal styles of writing.
Creativity is a process of making connections between ideas, sensory experiences and memories that leads to new and unique creations.
Creativity also employs intuitive thinking, recognizing patterns that allow the mind to leap from one thought to another by association. Freewriting encourages creativity by mimicking the creative process.
Why is freewriting so valuable?
In Accidental Genius, Levy provides a number of creative and practical applications that go beyond the basic timed writing practice and freestyle journaling for personal expression.
As Levy points out “many thoughts cannot be accessed by sheer will.” As you start to do freewriting, you find surprising combinations of thoughts colliding into each other, because you got out of the linear mode of trying to write one complete thought at a time.
It may sound like gibberish at first, but that doesn’t matter. Levy emphasizes that a freewriting session may be 90% garbage but have one incredibly valuable idea.
The value comes as you avoid interrupting your writing flow, letting the words spill out without stopping to change or edit anything, so you can write intuitively in the flow state and stay there as long as you can.
This doesn’t happen immediately. Like any creative discipline, writing is like a muscle and requires regular practice to develop agility with the medium. Freewriting takes some practice to get the hang of it.
Prompts are useful for jumpstarting your freewriting, especially if the prompt has a meaningful association to you. Prompts can shift you into writing about new topics or new angles you may not have considered before. Levy calls prompts “starter thoughts,” like this example:
I’d really impress myself if starting today I…
Prompts can be words, phrases, images, questions, and unfinished sentences like the prompt above. Start looking at everything you read and hear for potential evocative prompts. Write them down so you have a collection of prompts to work with. Here are a few from my collection:
What fascinates you?
the whisper of a beginning…
the magical hour between darkness and light…
Surprisingly, another source of prompts is just bare facts. Levy recommends writing down everything you know about the subject that is a fact. From this collection of facts, you can start making inferences.
Making writing automatic
Trying to form complete thoughts and sentences in your mind before committing them to paper is a trap many writers fall into. This can block you from being open to a flow of ideas that expands the topic of your focus.
The result of writing freely whatever comes to your mind has an interesting effect. Initially you write nonsense, but with practice, your subconscious participates more in the process, by anticipating your focus on writing quickly on a prompt or idea.
This works best when you are doing a timed writing and you know you only have 10 or 20 minutes to draft something. If you didn’t give yourself a timeblock, you might allow your mind to wander or start deliberating again on what’s the best way to say something.
Overthinking blocks your creative flow and is the main culprit of writer’s block. Yet, your mind can channel creative thoughts spontaneously if you stay out of the way. Regular practice of freewriting can train your mind to receive fresh ideas automatically.
By setting up the structure of a timed writing with a short phrase as a prompt, you have to force yourself to think quickly without deliberating too much. It may take some effort to achieve this level of automatic writing, but the potential benefits are worth it.
Below is a short sampling of just some of the many benefits of freewriting.
Benefits of freewriting
A huge benefit of freewriting is just breaking through the resistance to writing that many writers have. By lowering expectations, you get used to writing fast and loose without judging yourself. In addition, you can reap these benefits:
- Doing a quick freewrite as a warm-up helps to clear your mind so you can have more clarity to start writing.
- Having a discipline that keeps you from interrupting your writing flow helps you be more productive.
- Being more aware and attentive to your intuitive thoughts helps you catch them before they slip away.
- Transcribing your thoughts directly into writing helps you to think and write more narratively.
- Stimulating creative thinking pushes you to write about things you might not have thought of.
- Creating an inventory of thoughts and ideas that you can use in other pieces helps in content development. Levy recommends saving these “thought chunks” in files organized by the topics you write about.
I haven’t mentioned yet that nemesis of all writers, the inner critic. By now you should see that freewriting is primarily a strategy to shut off the critic, the part of our minds that negatively judges our writing before it’s barely written. Outsmarting the inner critic that stops us from writing is one of the greatest benefits and uses of freewriting.
By writing fast without stopping to second guess yourself, you gain the momentum necessary to bypass the unproductive habit of judging your writing. This allows the other benefits of increased creativity and inspired ideas served up from the subconscious to enhance your writing.
I hope you agree that freewriting can help you write more easily and creatively. Give it a try and let me know how it went in the comments.
References mentioned in this article are affiliate links.
- Levy, Mark, Accidental Genius, Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight and Content, Berrett-Koehler Publishers; Revised and updated edition, August 2, 2010.
- Goldberg, Natalie, Writing Down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala; Anniversary edition, February 2, 2016.
- Kerouac, Jack, On the Road. Penguin Classics; August 26, 2008.
- Kerouac, Jack, The Subterraneans. Grove Press; Revised edition, January 27, 1994.
- Goldberg, Natalie, The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life. Shambhala; Reprint edition, February 14, 2017.
- Elbow, Peter, Writing Without Teachers. Oxford University Press; 2 edition, June 25, 1998.