Whenever I sit down to write, I generally start with writing practice. Even when I’m in the middle of a story and itching to get straight back into it, I’ll still spend five minutes free writing (because there are some benefits I’ll mention in a moment).
What is free writing? It’s an opportunity to flex the wild, unbridled, uncritical side of your writing brain without trying to steer it in any direction. Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg are two influential writers who have written a lot about free writing, and it goes something like this:
The Free Writing Process
- Get a timer (this step is not essential, but it helps). Set it for a short period of time – start with two minutes, or five minutes. Start the timer. Don’t stop writing until the timer goes off.
- Start writing straight out of your head. Typing or handwriting, it doesn’t matter which.
- Write whatever comes into your mind, any word, phrase, sentence, train of thought, just write it down and keep writing and following wherever your mind takes you.
- Don’t stop writing, don’t pause, don’t cross out our delete anything, just keep writing. If you can’t think of anything to write, then write ‘I can’t think of anything to write’, over and over, until something jumps into your mind’s eye and captures your attention.
- Don’t judge. Switch off your inner critic and feel free to write badly. Complete rubbish. Utter nonsense. Doesn’t matter. Anything goes. Just pour, cough or grind it out.
- Don’t read over what you’ve written as you’re writing, or when you’ve finished. Not for at least a few weeks. You won’t remember writing a lot of it. You are likely to be surprised that in between the cracks of your parched prose, there are veins of gold. A bit of distance and time between writing and reading will help you to find them.
- Practice free writing every day, even if it’s just five minutes at a time.
- If the timer works for you, build up to ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. Take short breaks and go again. Whatever works for you to get things flowing (by the way, when I free write on my computer, I tend to use this free, online eggtimer).
Free writing is the best antidote I know to writer’s block. Since I’ve made it a part of my daily writing practice, I rarely get stuck for creative story ideas. The two short stories that I am currently working on both emerged during free writing sessions (from where, I cannot tell you – they just showed up).
Getting Started with Free Writing
If you’ve never tried free writing before, you may be confused about where to start. But it really is as simple as sitting down and starting to take dictation from your brain. Maybe think of it as capturing your inner monologue.
Some days your free writing may come out as a rant about the weather or interest rates or your water bill, but on others it will look at the fading yellow flowers outside your window and recall a favourite pair of boots you had as a kid that you wore to a party and took off to jump on a trampoline and then lost and cried about for two days. Aside from throwing up all sorts of treasure and debris, free writing has a tendency to recklessly drive you to places you’ve long forgotten.
If there’s nothing on the table in front of you, or out the window, or hanging on that wall over there, that grabs your attention as a starting place, then one of these three writing prompts will get you going. Just pick one and write the prompt words over and over until something comes out.
- ‘I remember…’
- ‘The first time I ever…’
Alternatively, go somewhere, anywhere, and write whatever’s around you. A cafe, a zoo, a park bench. A change of environment can often help your free writing to flow in a completely different direction.
Benefits of Free Writing
Free writing is a writing technique that helps you to bypass your internal censor and tap into deeper levels of thinking. Your expectations are low, because you’re not thinking about writing well, or even producing something that makes sense, you’re just dipping into your thoughts as they race through your mind.
When I’m in the middle of writing a story, the reason I always sit down and start my writing practice with a little free writing is that it often helps me to solve problems in my story. I don’t do my free writing with my work-in-progress in mind, but I find that my brain has been quietly working away at the story since I put it aside in my last writing sessions, and free writing gives it a chance to purge whatever it’s come up with.
Writing the Real Stuff
A final word from Natalie Goldberg on free writing:
Don’t be abstract. Write the real stuff. Be honest and detailed.
Writing Down the Bones, page 21.
When you’re free writing, it’s turning yourself inside out. You’re mining your own mind, your own resources and reactions and perceptions, your own body memory. You have experiences, thoughts, feelings, emotions, scars, memories, desires, triumphs, regrets…a lifetime of complexity, and a way of seeing the world that is unique. As a creative writer, accessing yourself through free writing will bring to the surface a mass of things to write about, and they’ll be things that resonate with you. Things you care about. They will feed stories you feel compelled to tell.
I think that the key to free writing is to come to it without an agenda. Just do it and see. Like most worthwhile pursuits, it is regular practice that makes it work.