Freewriting: A Great Writing Tool (Part One)

freewriting part 1

By Troy Headrick

Writing!  A topic of great interest at Pointless Overthinking.  In fact, Bogdan has written a number of blogs about writing and the psychology of putting things down on paper.  For example, there’s this one which begins by asking if the act of writing helps writers write better.  (I would answer such a question by saying that practice certainly makes perfect, as the old saying goes.)

Many of those who read this blog regularly are, themselves, bloggers, writers, deep thinkers, students of psychology and human behavior, and/or prolific readers.  So there are certainly lots of reasons to believe that writing is a subject that many are interested in.

I spent a lot of years working as a university instructor of writing and I currently manage a writing center at Palo Alto College, a community college in San Antonio, Texas.  That means I studied rhetoric and writing theory at a very advanced level when I was in graduate school.  Today, I’d like to share with you a writing tool that many would find both theoretically interesting and practically useful.

When I was I was working on my MA and PhD, I was asked to read many of the writings of Peter Elbow, a great scholars who is often thought of as the father of freewriting, the tool I wish to discuss with you today.

Though Elbow has written a lot about freewriting over the many years he’s been a teacher, a writer, and a thinker, perhaps his most succinct discussion of the subject can be found in “Freewriting Exercises,” chapter one of Writing without Teachers, his seminal 1973 work that was published by Oxford University Press.  I’ll be referring to that text to help me flesh out my discussion of freewriting.

I have used freewriting for many years to help student writers tackle many problems associated with composing.  Freewriting is basically an ideas-generation exercise that works wonders, so if you have trouble with writer’s block, or coming up with fresh ideas, discovering exactly what you want to say in a piece, or working on developing your “authentic voice”—another concept that Elbow has written a lot about—then freewriting is for you.

Freewriting works basically like this.  You sit down with a black piece of paper or computer screen in front of you (though paper sort of works best) and begin writing rapidly about anything that comes to mind.  You don’t worry about structure or focus or grammar or spelling or anything else.  Speed is important for a psychological reason.  We all have this nagging voice in our heads that is very self-critical.  This voice tells us things like, “Don’t say that!” or “That’s a stupid idea!” or “Are you sure you feel that way because, if you do, people are going to think you’re weird!”  This voice gets in the way of our creativity by making us paranoid right at the precise moment—at the very beginning of the writing process—when we should be freest in our thinking.  Thus, freewriting—because of its speed—allows us to “outrun” that nagging internal critic.  Because freewriting frees us up to explore in a non-judgmental way, it helps us make discoveries that wouldn’t otherwise be made.  By avoiding self-censorship in the earliest stages of any writing project, our mind is unfettered and thus apt to think and say things that will be surprising and insightful.  It’s like a tool that helps generate epiphanies.  Elbow says that the very best “thing about freewriting is that it is nonediting.”

Editing is the discerning mind beginning to make choices as you move deeper into the process and begin thinking about all sorts of things, like focus, structure, organization, coherence, etc.  Freewriting is a way of unleashing the imagination at the outset, way before you begin to even consider polishing your writing so it more closely resembles a finished composition.

If you’d like to see a sample of freewriting or learn in more detail about this wonderful tool, I strongly encourage you to have a look at the opening bit of Elbow’s Writing without Teachers.

Now that I’ve said a little about freewriting, what comes to mind as you look at this piece and at Elbow’s theories?  Do you feel that freewriting would be of help?  If so, why?  If not, why not?

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy:  Blog & Art.

32 thoughts on “Freewriting: A Great Writing Tool (Part One)

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences about your writing. It’s tragic that we’ve probably all prematurely thrown away things that we weren’t pleased with. But that’s because we weren’t thinking of writing as a process and were too impatient with whatever is was we were working on. I strongly advise you to look at the Elbow piece and to really think about freewriting as a wonderful tool that helps you get past that judgmental part of yourself. (We are all so hard on ourselves when it comes to writing!) By the way, I’ll follow this up with a second part that will go into more detail about how to incorporate this tool in practical ways.

  1. I love this idea. I am always censoring myself in my writing and editing while I write that it hinders progress and slows me down so much. I am a perfectionist and cannot stand seeing spelling mistakes or typos… But I need to let go more and be more free and creative in writing.

    1. Thank your for honestly sharing your writing experiences. Perfectionism is a killer personality trait when one is just getting started with a piece of writing. It does come in handy though during the editing and rewriting process. I strongly advise you to read the full Elbow piece. His thinking about the psychology of the creative process is brilliant.

    1. Yes, it does. It sort of clears the head and helps a person breath easier. One feels like something cathartic has taken place. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Wow, this is priceless… I have a notebook in my drawer which is still blank, actually I didn’t know what to use it for… Now I do, and see what happens 😀

  3. I feel like a lot of my posts are a form of free writing. There’s an idea, and then I run with it to see where it goes. THEN I buff it up with some spelling and grammar checks. Ideas need to be somewhat understandable to be shared.

    1. The process you follow sounds very efficient and makes good theoretical and practical sense. One of the benefits of starting with freewriting (that has been “buffed” up some, as you say) is that the voice and pacing of the writing is often authentic and quick. Such writing doesn’t “plod”; it “bounces.” Thanks for your comment, and thanks for being a regular reader!

  4. I think this is the only way I have been able to write anything. Anytime I try to think or format any sort of article or essay, it just doesn’t come out right. Thank you for sharing. Elbow’s article was a great read and I will continue my free writing.

    1. Hi. Sorry for the delay in responding. Like you, I generally sort of discover what I want to say while in the act of saying it. I guess some folks are able to plot out pieces of writing before they begin, but that is hard for me (and, as it seems, hard for you). I’m glad you liked the Elbow piece. He has some really interesting things to say about “authentic voice” too. Thanks for the comment and have a nice day.

    1. I’m glad you’ve found freewriting helpful. Are you a writing teacher? When did you first learn about this technique? Thanks for the comment and sorry for the delay in responding to it.

      1. I am a teacher but I teach English as a foreign language. I am not sure where I first heard of free-writing but it can definitiely be helpful

      2. Fantastic. I have also been an ESL instructor and have taught other university-level courses for students who were advanced in English but used the language as their non-native tongue. I have taught ESL and composition and research methodology for ESL students in Poland, the UAE, Turkey, and Egypt. Do you do ESL in the USA or abroad?

      3. Wow you have done heaps. I teach in Ho Chi Minh City. I teach at public school but it is school holidays right now so I am in the process of setting up some online teaching gigs for the summer.

  5. I use freewriting all the time to warm up, clear my mind, or just order my thoughts. It’s a great tool. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about it.

      1. I read about many years ago in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I loved that book, and it really boosted my writing. Yes, I am. I teach intro to writing at my university. What about you?

      2. I’ve taught a wide variety of academic writing, research methodology, literature, philosophy, and critical thinking classes at universities and community colleges that were located in five countries. I currently manage a writing center at Palo Alto College, part of the Alamo College system of campuses in San Antonio, Texas. I was born in America but only returned to the US about three years ago after living nearly 20 years abroad. I’m just learning how to live like an American again and have lots of reverse culture shock. Life, in America, is very difficult, I’m finding.

      3. Good luck with everything! I know that adjusting to new ways of living may not be easy, but I’ve always found it exciting.

  6. Is the freewriting meant to be read afterwards? I did it once and it was really stream of consciousness. I did not look at it again, would there be value in reading it?

    1. Hi. You’ve asked a really important question and one I hope to address when I do my “Part Two.” Actually, freewriting is often not normally the kind of writing one would share. It’s mostly a tool to generate ideas and is, therefore, only intended to the very earliest stage of the writing process, a step toward something that could be called “finished.” However, a person can do something called “focused freewriting” or clean up a piece of freewriting so that it is more structured and coherent but still maintains the sort of vibrancy or immediacy that is characteristic of stream-of-consciousness writing. I think I’ll more fully answer your question in the follow-up to this one, so please stay tuned…

  7. Please note that this piece was the first of a two-part series on freewriting. That second part will be published toward the middle of this week, so please check back!

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