Free writing is a prewriting technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling, grammar, or topic. It produces raw, often unusable material, but helps writers overcome blocks of apathy and self-criticism. It is used mainly by prose writers and writing teachers. Some writers use the technique to collect initial thoughts and ideas on a topic, often as a preliminary to formal writing. Free writing is not the same as automatic writing.
Unlike brainstorming where ideas are simply listed, in freewriting one writes sentences to form a paragraph about whatever comes to mind.
Dorothea Brande was an early proponent of freewriting. In her book Becoming a Writer (1934), she advises readers to sit and write for 30 minutes every morning, as fast as they can.
The technique involves continuous writing, usually for a predetermined period of time (often five to fifteen minutes). The writer writes without regard to spelling, grammar, etc., and makes no corrections. If the writer reaches a point where they can't think of anything to write, they write that they can't think of anything, until they find another line of thought. The writer freely strays off topic, letting thoughts lead where they may. At times, a writer may also do a focused freewrite, letting a chosen topic structure their thoughts. Expanding from this topic, the thoughts may stray to make connections and create more abstract views on the topic. This technique helps a writer explore a particular subject before putting ideas into a more basic context.
Freewriting is often done on a daily basis as a part of the writer's daily routine. Also, students in many writing courses are assigned to do such daily writing exercises.
The writing does not have to be done with pen and paper. A technique known as Freeblogging combines blogging with free-writing with the rules changed so that the writer does not stop typing for long periods of time. The end result may or may not be shared with the public.
Free writing is based on a presumption that, while everybody has something to say and the ability to say it, the mental wellspring may be blocked by apathy, self-criticism, resentment, anxiety about deadlines, fear of failure or censure, or other forms of resistance. The accepted rules of free-writing enable a writer to build up enough momentum to blast past blocks into uninhibited flow, the concept outlined by writing teachers such as Louise Dunlap, Peter Elbow, and Natalie Goldberg.
Use in education
- Give yourself a time limit. Write for one or ten or twenty minutes, and then stop.
- Keep your hand moving until the time is up. Do not pause to stare into space or to read what you've written. Write quickly but not in a hurry.
- Pay no attention to grammar, spelling, punctuation, neatness, or style. Nobody else needs to read what you produce here. The correctness and quality of what you write do not matter; the act of writing does.
- If you get off the topic or run out of ideas, keep writing anyway. If necessary, write nonsense or whatever comes into your head, or simply scribble: anything to keep the hand moving.
- If you feel bored or uncomfortable as you're writing, ask yourself what's bothering you and write about that.
- When the time is up, look over what you've written, and mark passages that contain ideas or phrases that might be worth keeping or elaborating on in a subsequent free-writing session.
Goldberg's rules appear to be based on those developed by Jack Kerouac, whom she cites several times. Kerouac developed 30 "rules" in his Belief & Technique for Modern Prose. While Kerouac's "rules" are elliptical and even cryptic for beginning writers, they are more comprehensive than Goldberg's for those who have practised prose writing for some time. Kerouac supplemented these with his Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, and together they form the basis of his prose writing method, a form of narrative stream of consciousness. Kerouac himself cites the "trance writing" of William Butler Yeats as a precursor of his own practice.
Goldberg's rules, which are infused with the study and practice of Zen Buddhism, make the process of free writing more accessible for a beginner and are perhaps less extreme than those of Kerouac, although they are still tinged with an element of mysticism.
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- Goldberg, Natalie (1986). "Writing down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within".