The Craft of Writing
Jul 25, 2022

Freewriting - Silence Your Inner Critic and Let the Words Flow

Learn about freewriting, a technique that can help stimulate creativity or overcome Writer's Block.

T L Murchison
T L Murchison
Person about to start running

Authors do much more than write words. They focus on storytelling first and foremost, but also have to consider what readers will think, and whether they will understand the characters. They have to make sure the story’s pacing flows well and that there aren’t plot holes. Authors must be mindful of spelling and grammar mistakes. Sometimes juggling all of this can bog an author down, stifle creativity or even result in the dreaded writer’s block.

There are a multitude of strategies for avoiding these potholes, but freewriting or automatic writing might be the simplest of them all. The joy of this writing process is mistakes are not only forgiven, but encouraged. The practice of freewriting helps stimulate creativity and get more words on the page.

“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.” — Robert Cormier

What is Freewriting?

Developed by Peter Elbow in 1973, freewriting is a writing strategy where you throw all the conventions of writing, grammar, sentence structure, style and form out the window. Instead, you jot down your thoughts as they come to you, during short writing sessions. No pausing to think! The idea is that you tap into your stream of consciousness and keep words flowing uninterrupted. 

Freeing your mind of the mechanics of the writing process gives you the potential to open up your imagination and take you on unexpected journeys. The process is the sister of brainstorming, but with a far less concentrated approach. You don’t pause. You don’t make decisions. You can write in run-on sentences and you don’t have to worry about paragraph breaks. There are no bad questions or wrong answers. Everything is viable.

Ah, freedom.  

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron took this idea and suggested “morning pages,” or freewriting  first thing in the morning. Her idea is to capture creative thoughts before the tasks of the day set in, or jot down all those day-to-day concerns that get in the way of creative writing and empty the brain before sitting down to write your novel. Getting the pen moving was the motivation behind Natalie Goldberg’s 1986 classic guide Writing Down the Bones.

“The consequence [of writing] is that you must start by writing the wrong meanings in the wrong words; but keep writing until you get to the right meanings in the right words. Only in the end will you know what you are saying.” — Peter Elbow

Or to put it another way: 

“Don’t think; just write!” — Ray Bradbury

Benefits of Freewriting

Writing quickly and continuously without worry can have significant benefits.

Let your ideas flow

When not focusing on plot points or a character’s voice, your mind may be open to letting new ideas flow, or to finding innovative ways of exploring how to achieve your goals. Focused freewriting takes away the guard rails and lets your mind wander. The stream of consciousness aspect takes you out of the day to day formal writing process and lets you get back to basics, exploring what inspired you to write your book in the first place. 

Perhaps you are overwhelmed or don’t know where to start writing. Using the freewriting technique is ideal for these situations because it acts as an intensive brainstorming session with a time limit, giving you the freedom to explore themes and concepts. The process can help you rough out ideas and plot points without having to follow beat sheets, outlines or any other formal structure, etc. 

No more censoring

For some authors, structure is essential to their process. They create a beat sheet, map out every plot point, and write to form. Inherent in there is a restriction of ideas. 

If the chapter you sit down to write today is limited to getting the hero across the bridge to slay the dragon, you are limiting yourself to that task, perhaps closing yourself off to new ideas. Maybe the story your hero has to tell you that day is about how to slay the dragon, the history of dragons, or how their mother makes great dragon soup. 

In freewriting, you can let your mind go and write what you (or your characters) feel in the moment. It can be a useful technique for getting down conversations between characters, letting them speak their minds without inhibitions. Those conversations could then be edited down later to suit the story.

A Literary Warm-up

You wouldn’t run ten laps without stretching your muscles first, and the same can be said for writing. Writing involves the muscles in your hand and arms (or your throat and tongue if you dictate) and also your mind. A focused freewriting session is a creative way to get yourself into the writing mode, do some prewriting, or start a first draft. The timed sessions can create a piece of writing you didn’t expect and get the imagination juices pumping. 

Overcome Writer’s Block

Freewriting is a popular cure for writer’s block. Maybe you don’t know where the story needs to go, or you feel you’ve hit a creative speed bump. With freewriting you push past those creative blocks by focusing on the act of writing, not the content produced. 

Looming deadlines can freeze a writer, while on the opposite spectrum, apathy toward a story or writing might dampen an author’s drive. Without consequences or requirements forcing you to write, freewriting sets you free from those confines and lets your mind find alternative paths to the places you want your story to go. 

Combat self doubt

Impostor syndrome can hit a writer at any time, and it is the enemy of innovation. Freewriting is a positive way to fight your fear of failure, push through self-criticism and perfection paralysis by proving to you and your mind that you can write, and you do have ideas. 

“I never think at all when I write. Nobody can do two things at the same time and do them both well.” — Don Marquis

How to freewrite

It may sound daunting at first, but there are a few techniques that can help you get into the freewriting mode, ready to unleash the writer within.

1. Find your spot

Set yourself up for success. Have your writing tools, either laptop, phone or pen and paper ready, your favorite drink on hand, snacks in place etc. to prepare your mind to write. You may want to reread something you recently wrote or a passage from your favorite book to set the stage for inspiration. 

2. Set a timer

The standard amount of time is 15 to 25 minutes. The concept here is to focus your efforts on the task of writing in short spurts. By chunking your writing sessions into smaller sections, your brain knows a break is coming up and you can concentrate on one simple task—words on the page. 

Pro Tip: Try searching for the Pomodoro Method on YouTube to find a variety of timer videos on repetitive loops. Some have “focus” music included to increase your productivity.

3. Ignore mistakes

This one takes a bit getting used to, but if you misspell a word, forget quotation marks or any other typical issue your mind would usually focus on, disregard it and keep going. This allows your mind to wander and explore without being confined to proper spelling and grammar. Textbook, flawless English is not the point of this exercise.

4. Embrace the flow

Most likely, you will have an idea or a topic you want to brainstorm on. That’s a great place to start, but don’t stop writing if your mind takes you on a tangent. Accept the distraction and see where it takes you. 

5. Don’t fact check

Whatever happens, keep writing. Don’t know the correct rank for an officer in the military? Don’t stop to find out. Use the first name you come up with and move on. Can’t think of a name, use a placeholder word or even a symbol. Researching facts and finding clarity halt the freewriting process and are tasks for the editing process. 

6. Write on, completely changing topics if needed

Run out of ideas? Write the words “I have run out of ideas” or “I don’t know what to write.” Answer the question: what should I write? The human brain is wired to solve problems. Often the act of just starting to type will get you going. 

If that doesn’t work, describe your surroundings, what you did yesterday, how your character would have reacted to the events in your life yesterday. Ask yourself what if questions. Try the “yes, and…” technique used by improv comedians. Keep writing until the next idea comes to you. 

7. Don’t stop until the timer goes off

The key ingredient is that you don’t stop typing / writing / dictating for the prescribed time you have allotted for your freewriting exercise. It doesn’t matter what you write, as long as you write. But what you write may surprise you.

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” – William Faulkner

Try it, you might like it.

Whether you’ve been writing for years or are just starting out, the freewriting technique is a practice you can implement every day or on demand to improve your writing. It’s a fun and innovative way to do some prewriting, discover new ideas, organize your thoughts and enjoy writing again. 

Best of all, freewriting is a simple concept, without any rules, except one: 

Don’t stop writing. 

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