Three Ways to Free Write

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“I have no idea where to start.”

“I’m overwhelmed with all the reading I’ve done and I can’t get into writing.”

“I’m stuck!”

If this sounds like you, then it’s time to start free writing.

According to Robert Boice (Professors as Writers; Advice to New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus), the phrase “free writing” was developed by Peter Elbow (Writing Without Teachers).  Elbow gives the following instructions:

“… [W]rite for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty).  Don’t stop for anything.  Go quickly without rushing.  Never stop to look back, to cross something out… to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing.  If you can’t think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write, “I can’t think of it.’  Just put down something.” (p. 1)

Free writing means writing with no self-criticism.  When you free write, you don’t worry about grammar, beautiful phraseology, or even whether your writing actually makes sense. 

I believe that you should “free write” until you are almost done with your manuscript.

Your free writing will change in character depending on how confused you feel and where you are in your work.  There are times where you need to be very loose and carefree in order to get your thoughts down, and there are times where you need to be more careful.  The key is to identify your Level of Free Writing. 

Free Writing Level One: Free Write to Unblock

If you are completely blocked, you need to be at the first Level of Free Writing.  Follow the general format suggested above by Elbow.  In addition, there are a number of free writing “tricks” that you can use at this point in order to unblock yourself.  What they all have in common is that they require you to be completely uninhibited in what you write.  This is writing that you will in all probability delete when you’re done, or save for some use unrelated to your academic project, such as a personal journal.

  • Write about how blocked you are and how frustrated and upset you feel.
  • Write about something neutral or even silly, in order to relax yourself.
  • Write about why you find it so difficult to write.
  • Write about your fears and concerns regarding the writing you wish you could do.
  • If you are experiencing emotional turmoil, even about something completely unrelated to the current project, free write about the emotional upset, in order to release some of the feelings so that you can start the next Level of free writing.

It’s probably best to put a time limit on this kind of loose free writing — frequently 15 minutes is enough to allow you to get to Level Two.  If not, then try Level One for a few days, to see if you become unblocked enough, and slowly work into Level Two.

Free Writing Level Two: Free Academic Writing

The next level of free writing comes when you are not so blocked that you can’t write about your subject, but you’re not really clear about where you’re going.  Free writing can be very useful in this situation. 

It’s important at this Level not to inhibit yourself by thinking about formal rules of writing.  You might write about something that needs some introduction that you’re not ready to write, something that you’re not sure you’ll include in this section, or an argument you’re not sure is correct.  Write it anyway. 

You don’t need to write all your thoughts in full sentences.  You may ask yourself questions, write yourself notes to check on a citation later, even make lists of ideas.  Don’t worry if you use clunky words at this point.  Just get those thoughts and ideas down.

Here is an example of a paragraph that I wrote that was an earlier version of the previous paragraph.  See what a mess it was?  But at least I got the ideas down that I wanted to consider including at this point.

At this Level it can be useful to write lists, what else?  not writing in full sentences.  write questions, dilemmas, notes about what you need to ask someone, things to check, ideas.  Forget grammar, beautiful words, get your ideas down.

At this Level you can use the following techniques:

  • Ask yourself questions, such as “What am I really trying to say here?” 
  • Note questions you need to ask others
  • Note information that’s lacking by writing in different color font
  • Make lists
  • Don’t worry if you notice that you’re repeating yourself.  It’s easy to delete the worst written version later.
  • Go back and forth between any outlines you might have made and writing
  • Use different color fonts or double brackets to separate your notes and questions visually from the rest of your writing.

Free Writing Level Three: Free Revision Writing

This Level may not be defined by some authors as free writing.  I believe, however, that it is important to highlight this as a valid type of free writing for academics. 

You are at Level Three when you’re “mini-revising”:  fixing the relatively messy free-writing you’ve done before. You might be writing about much more specific, well-thought-out areas.  However, you’re not yet ready with all your quotes, citations, or even evidence for your argument. You will probably add additional sentences and paragraphs while you’re in the process of re-organizing and reconsidering what you’ve written. This is Level Three Free Revision Writing.

Some people get stuck at this point because they start to become aware that their work is closer to being done, and they will need to show it to more expert readers.  But if you stay in the free-writing frame of mind, you will avoid getting stuck.  Continue to use different color fonts or brackets to note that you need to find a quote or a reference, and then find them in a different, non-writing session.

Free Writing – The Key

If you keep these three Levels of Free Writing in mind while you work on your project, you will trick yourself into arriving at the stage of doing your final, polished revisions without unnecessary heartache.  Free writing as long as possible is the key!


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