Freeing your mind with freewriting

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Making a start can often be one of the hardest things to do when writing. Writer’s block is the bane of many a scribe, even those who do it for a living. We can get so caught up in our heads thinking about the task before us that we struggle to put pen to paper.

That’s where a technique like freewriting can come in handy. Freewriting has arguably been around for centuries, but was only given a name several decades ago. Writing guru, Peter Elbow, is credited with inventing the term in the early 1970s. The freewriting technique involves deliberately writing for a set amount of time without stopping. A bit like a computer screen dump, freewriting forces you to download everything stored in your head about a topic, in unedited written form.

Elbow suggests the value in freewriting is not so much in what it produces, but what its practice leads to—a Zen-like ability to focus the mind and write coherently in the moment without the usual conscious effort. Like we learn to speak fluently without concern for the mechanics of speech, so we can learn to write powerfully without agonising over the act of writing, argues Elbow.

Although I was sceptical at first, I’ve since become a fan of freewriting. If I’ve managed to convince you to give freewriting a go, here are three tips that I’ve found useful for making the most of what the technique has to offer:

  • Turn-off your spell-checker. Nothing disrupts the flow of your writing more than having every little typo you make underlined in red as you tap away on your word processor. You can always turn your spell-checker back on later to make these sorts of corrections.

  • Don’t make your freewriting sessions too long. Elbow recommended around ten minutes, and I wouldn’t try for beyond 20 minutes. The point is not to agonise and work yourself to exhaustion. You can always build on a session later once your flagging creativity has had a chance to recover.

  • You can begin freewriting focusing on a specific topic or nothing in particular: both approaches can work. But, be warned, the temptation to physically stop writing will be greatest when your mind is blank. In these situations, even writing about your inability to write is preferable to quitting, and could lead you to write about novel and exciting things you might not otherwise have considered.

Freewriting is not a cure for all your writing ills. However, it can be a great un-blocker of creativity, especially in the early stages of a writing project. All it requires of us is an open mind and a willingness to suspend judgement about the worthiness of our writing, at least for a little while.