Freewriting is a writing practise where by you pick up a pen (or sit at your keyboard) and write, non-stop for a timed period.
By forcing yourself to ‘just write’ you allow your stream of consciousness to spill out onto the page therefore tapping into your creative subconscious.
It sounds so simple! But often it’s not. And here’s why.
When I was in my final year of high school I did an extra credit English subject where we had to produce a major work of 10,000 words.
Excited after my first class, I went home and freewrote 6000 words then took the story to class the next week and showed my teacher. What she said put me off freewriting for a long time.
My characters were lacking motivation, it was too angsty, I used too many adjectives, there was too much backstory and a thousand other criticisms that seemed to cut into my very soul. Because while she was right, at the time I took it to mean my secret dream of being a writer could not come true. I thought I simply wasn’t good enough. And while I did finish my major work – completely different to the first story I’d attempted – it didn’t come from within me the same way.
That first piece had gloriously and effortlessly bubbled out of me
It had come from a part of me which had been locked away and covered in cobwebs for years. A part of me I triple barricaded up again until I attended my first writing course about 5 years later.
While my school teacher was right I wish she’d told me this instead:
“There’s a difference, though, between writing as practise and writing as art: Writing as practise is an acceptance of your whole mind and whatever comes through you, moment by moment. Writing as art is taking what comes through you and directing it. Writing practise is the whole ocean, but when you’re creating art, you dig a canal and direct the force of the water in a particular way.”
– Natalie Goldberg
Goldberg suggests we should view writing as an athletic activity
Because when it comes to sport we don’t dive into a pool for the first time in three years and expect to be Michael Phelps. So why then when it comes to writing should we expect to produce the opening paragraph of War and Peace the first time we sit down with our notebook? We shouldn’t. But many of us do and if we produce rubbish – as I did with my first attempt at a story – we think we’ve failed.
One of my favourite quotes from Aristotle backs this up:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
If we take this advice then we realise that by simply writing a lot, we become writers. And writers who write a lot, are more likely to become excellent. Freewriting is a means by which you can achieve this.
So back to Goldberg
She states that freewriting allows us to have access to our ‘original mind’ our ‘wild mind’ – to write down the first thought that comes to us before the second or third can materialise. She suggests this is important because:
- It allows you to express what’s inside before you censor yourself
- You can write without worrying about external factors eg societal pressures and norms
- You can write faster than your inner critic can keep up with
- You access a freshness and an energy by unlocking a hidden part of your creative subconscious
- You learn to trust what intuitively comes through you
Will some of what you write be rubbish? Definitely. But you need to give yourself permission to write rubbish.
And that brings me to the creative compost heap
A compost heap by definition is a pile of rubbish – food scraps and cuttings you consider waste. You chuck them all together and then leave them to break down. Yes it’s smelly and kind of gross but the compost heap also helps to create life. Compost gives nutrients to new seedlings so they can grow into something bigger, better.
The same is true for your writing. While a lot of what you produce in a freewrite will be unusable, once you’ve left it to stew you’ll find some amazing seedlings you won’t believe have come from within you. You can then take these seedlings and nurture them into something great.
I begin everything with a freewrite
Whether I’m composing an email, producing copy for a client, working on the bones of a fictional story or indeed writing this blog. And because I’ve had a lot of practise – with a bit of nurturing (i.e. editing, rearranging and some back up research) – what I write during this process usually makes up the bulk of what I’m trying to say.
But what if you’re a planner?
There are two types of writers, planners and pantsers (or architects and gardeners).
Planners – know what they’re writing about and generally work off an outline. This could be as simple as listing subheadings in a blog or chapters in a book. Some planners go into such detail their plans contain more words than their final work. And that’s ok because we as writers need to know more than our audience does – what they see is only the tip of the iceburg. Planners can also be called architects.
Pantsers – are writers who fly by the seat of their pants. They write their first drafts with a vague idea in mind and watch it develop into something as they go. Pantsers are also known as gardeners. They plant the seed of an idea and then watch as it grows into a tree.
There are pros and cons for both planners and pantsers to keep in mind
If you’re a planner you run the risk of sticking to your outline so firmly you prevent yourself from exploring other ideas and letting your creativity run free. Pantsers have the opposite problem. They could find a tangent and run off with that – taking them too far from the original purpose of the writing. This is especially true if producing work for a paying client.
As you can probably tell from this post, I, by nature am a pantser. But recently I’ve heard a lot of planners speak about the benefits of freewriting. While they may still follow a plan, they will freewrite about a topic within their outline. For example, a planner who has a list of every chapter of their novel and a basic idea of what will take place in each, will sit down and freewrite 2000 words of each chapter a day until it’s complete.
In doing this they feel secure with their outline supporting them but are still allowing their creativity to run lose. Of course this is only their first draft and it will take a lot of editing and polishing before it shines bright enough to be sent out into the world.
So what are the three most important things to take away from this post?
- Freewriting is awesome
- You need to allow yourself to write rubbish
- And finally don’t send something you’ve freewritten out into the world like I did! Take the best parts of it and nurture it into something amazing.
If you want to learn more about writing practise check out Natalie Goldberg’s books:
- Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
- Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life
- The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language
And don’t forget to share any of your freewriting experiences in the comments.