I have a thought, perhaps out of the blue or perhaps in the midst of writing something else, and I give myself permission to pursue it on paper in an uncontrolled way wherever it wants to go-even if it digresses (which it usually does).

– Peter Elbow on “Unfocused Exploring”, Toward a Phenomenology of Freewriting

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to getting back into the writing game is finding dedicated time to actually write. But once you put your foot down, schedule in the time and actually sit down to put words down, the second biggest roadblock is not knowing what to write. I’ve found that guided free-writing really helps.

Here’s a 4 step process to think about next time you find yourself with the time to write, but not the means.

1. Pick a prompt.

Ultimately, a prompt can be about anything, but remember that it should be a prompt. A prompt can be a question, but ‘What is 2 + 2?’ is not a prompt (unless you’re an abstract mathematician) .

Some prompts I like to use that are relevant to writing:

  • What do I think my very next “non-writing” steps are?
  • Write the backstory of a character I haven’t given much love to yet in my story.
  • What research do I need to do for my writing?
  • What are different plot ideas I haven’t explored yet?
  • What’s the history of a particular location in my book?

I also do this for my personal life. Sometimes I sit down and write about ‘Why am I feeling down today?’ or ‘How do I know if I’m really making a decision that will make me happy?’. Sometimes, it’s easier to start with personal prompts before jumping into work ones.

Ready. 

2. Set a timer.

For how long? However long you need to explore a prompt (but more likely whatever your schedule can accommodate). I suggest 5 minutes to start.

Set.

“5 minutes.”

3. Let the words out. 

Go.

“Freewriting is super important. It’s the fastest way to getideas and results as a writer. I love it. It literally unblocks my writing and allows me to just think fluidly. Maybe beacuse I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about certain things or dedicate the time, freewriting allows me to focus in on a topic, set my intention and really force myself to think about all that I might know. It kinda jumpstarts my writing. If I need to figure otu next steps or think about all that I need to do, the freewriting teases it out an dif I’m looking to brainstorm thoughts I don’t let myself be brought down by bad ideas. All thoughts welcome. I love that…”

The above is a snippet of unedited, raw freewriting. Note the casual disregard for grammar. Spelling. Coherency. Or really anything that remotely resembling a piece of writing you would want to share in public.

But the point is…

The power in free-writing comes from not taking time to pause, edit, or delete words–or worry about phrasing and grammar. It is about getting passed those initial moments of self-judgement and discomfort, and through to those areas of free-association where your mind and hands connect to build thoughts and ideas that may not have initially occurred to you (ahem, perhaps something similar to this post’s main image). 

And all you have to do is get out of your mind’s way. Just let your thoughts come out in raw words without worrying about good writing. It’s an exercise in production and creative connections, not cohesive refinement. The more extreme version of this is stream-of-consciousness writing, an unfettered narrative mode of writing – and if you like freewriting I definitely encourage you to give it a whirl. 

4. Reflect and learn.

After the time runs out and you’ve stopped writing, the last step is to synthesize what’s come out. Maybe that means simply reflecting on what you’ve written. Or maybe you can take actionable things from what you’ve done.

Here are some synthesis tips:

  1. Read over what you’ve written. If the only use you got out of the exercise was writing words on paper, then congratulate yourself for writing at all!
  2. Tease out next steps and put them to use. Did anything in your free-writing start with a verb? Create tasks out of them. (ie, Redo Sally’s character. Edit chapter 4. etc)
  3. Tease out ideas for an outline or for your actual draft.
  4. Copy paste or preserve the writing you like (even if they’re just phrases!) and save them for your writing.

Whatever the exercise has done for you, remember to pause and learn from it. Take what you learned and put it to use.

Synthesize.

Why is free-writing important? My takeaways:

  • It unblocks you from putting words down
  • It’s a fast way to get ideas and next steps
  • It helps me set my intention for whatever I’m trying to do.
  • It’s fun. And sometimes therapeutic!

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