When Free Writing Works…and When It Doesn’t

Photo by on

You’re in the middle of writing a chapter of your novel and suddenly you are stuck. What to do? How to work yourself out of your confusion over what to do next? Free write.

You have a vague idea for a personal essay but there are aspects of it you just can’t wrap your brain around. What to do? Free write.

You want to write but it feels like your ideas are locked inside your brain. What to do? Free write.

Free Writing Process

What is free writing? It is a committed, open-ended writing practice that often produces magical results — not magical in the completion of a fully formed, finished product, but magical in that it accesses thoughts and ideas the deep recesses of your brain.

Here’s what widely credited with using free writing to change the way writing is taught at all levels of education, says about it:

Freewriting is an exercise. Write for ten minutes without stopping. No topic. Write whatever comes to mind. It is a space for exploring the mind and language — but it must be also be a space for triviality, nonsense, garbage. Thus it must be private. You can’t ask people to freewrite if they have to let someone else read it. And it must be frequent. No exercise gives full benefits without repetition (even if a door sometimes opens right away). Thus real freewriting isn’t “practical.” It’s not a way to write a draft of an essay. Nor is it an attempt at magic, authenticity, or a full record of the mind. You’ve done it perfectly if you’ve kept writing for ten minutes — even if it’s just one word or one sentence over and over. Freewriting exploits what the mind can do with language and thinking when you can’t plan or rehearse your words in your head before you write them — when you have to take what comes — especially after you feel you have run out. It invites blurting or being unguarded. It exploits the mind’s ability to come up with unexpected thoughts and syntax with energy and life.

What’s the Point?

So if, as Peter Elbow says, free writing is not practical, then what is the point? The answers are many, among them:

— To access your subconscious

— To make the flow of your writing more facile. The more you write anything, the easier it is to write everything.

— To help you get unstuck

— To access your own true voice

— To warm up for your “real” writing

— To write a rough draft for your work in progress

How To Do It

The rules are simple — set a timer, usually for ten to twenty minutes and write. The trick is to write without stopping. Literally. Without stopping. For real. Keep you hand moving across the page, even if you write the same word over and over again. Just keep writing, no matter what. (I’ve done free writing exercises in workshops and writers stop and ponder. NO. That’s not free writing. That’s writing and pondering and it is a whole different process.)

It is usually helpful to write to a prompt (readily available all over the internet and in ), but the prompt is only a starting point. Let your brain go wherever. Don’t try to confine your brain to sticking to a certain topic, just let it wander wherever it wants to go.

You can then go through and underline or highlight sentences you like and use one of these for you next free writing session. You can also use free writing for your current WIP with a few tweaks. Take a line from a chapter or scene, or use the name of a character or location for a prompt. Remember not to expect lovely finished pieces from this process. Rather, look for ideas, inspiration, energy for new directions in your work.

Often — most of the time — free writing works brilliantly. It can loosen you up, unstuck you, send you down promising paths you’d never have thought of otherwise.

But what about when it doesn’t work?

Sometimes when free writing the writing ends up feeling false. Like nothing is happening. Like you’re just writing crap (Okay, so much free writing is crap — but when free writing is working, it feels rich and fertile, like compost.) It feels inauthentic.

Sometimes it can be difficult to make the leap from free writing to focusing on producing finished pieces. You get stuck in the free writing bog and can’t get out.

The problem is often that you’re blocking your subconscious. Sometimes this happens when you force yourself to stick to the prompt and your mind wants to wander freely. And, there are work-arounds for such instances. Such as:

— Set a timer and make lists. Don’t force yourself to write anything coherent, just make lists. You can later use these lists as prompts for your free writing.

— Write a journal entry

— Do a mind map before you write. This works especially well for focused free writing. Write your topic or prompt in the center of the page, then start writing everthing you can thing that pertains to it in branches off the middle. Again, Google it — there’s tons of info out there, and even programs you can do on the computer.

— Meditate for a few minutes before you write.

Focused free writing

At some point your project will demand a more focused approach and you will want to branch off from the free writing. Then it is time for:

Focused free writing. This is when you do stick to the prompt or topic when free writing. Maybe your brain really does want to be more disciplined. This kind of free writing is great to do in tandem with a WIP.

But don’t ever forget that in every stage of the work, editing and writing are two separate processes. Keep them that way!



Peter Elbow

Natalie Goldberg


This post uses affiliate links.

Novelist, writing teacher, coach. Workshops in France, Portland, and virtually. Sign up for weekly love letters and get a free Ebook:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store