Freewriting is the process of sitting down and writing in sentences for 5-15 minutes, without stopping, or at the very least, without pausing to analyse what you have written. The idea is to write in an uninhibited, uncensored way, and to just let your ideas flow. What comes out on paper can be anything between a stream of consciousness, a halting, repetitive outburst of emotion, or even a smooth, elegant argument. In freewriting you do not normally show your work to others (although you might discuss it). Conventionally, it works best when writing in longhand rather than typing on a keyboard.
Popularised by writing facilitators such as Peter Elbow (1973, 1981) and Linda Flower and John R. Hayes (1977) as a way of encouraging composing, its strength lies in it being rather different from the ways of writing normally encouraged on academic courses. It encourages expression of unconscious mind. It also tends to allay, at least temporarily, anxiety and self-criticism. In my work with students and staff, I tend to use freewriting as a way of getting people to write down what they think and feel - something that is often not encouraged in their formal academic writing within the discipline, except in certain forms of reflective writing (Chapter 6).
Think of an assignment you are about to carry out. Spend 5-10 minutes writing down what you think and feel about writing this assignment. Keep going, writing in sentences, and don’t stop to read what you have written. Keep pressing forward until you reach the end of the allocated time. Don’t worry about whether what you have written is grammatically correct, elegantly punctuated or correctly spelt. Once you have finished, then read what you have written.
(a)How do you feel now that you have finished the freewriting? Have your feelings changed from before you started?
(b)How does what you have written differ from the way you normally write for academic purposes?
(c)Does what you have written reveal anything useful, unusual or surprising to you?
Here are three short extracts of freewriting from individuals given the opportunity to write down what they thought and felt about writing a dissertation. In all three cases, the experience was helpful to the person concerned, moving them on in the process of planning a dissertation:
I like the lab work. The writing is a pain. Not done much writing except, for lab reports and work
placement reports. This is much bigger than anything I’ve done before! I’m going to need help. This session is a start.
[The dissertation] looks mighty big. John said it was hardest thing he did on the course. But really enjoyable. Felt like being a real academic engineer.
Even writing essays is difficult. This thing is much bigger. I’ve got a really interesting topic. I guess the thing is to really plan ahead and do the writing as I go, not leave it all to the end. And make the process enjoyable. After all, I chose the topic!
Other ways of using freewriting
Freewriting does not have to be used before you undertake an academic writing assignment. It can be used at any time as a way of unlocking ideas, emptying your mind, discovering what you think and feel about something, or simply exercising your writing ’muscles’. It can be used in quite a directive way to explore your thoughts and feelings, for example: ’What are my prejudices and biases about this topic?’, ’Why am I bored with this topic?’, ’What is holding me back about this assignment?’, ’What is my biggest fear with this assignment?’, ’What if I were [give a named person] writing this assignment? How would it change?’. Be creative about the questions you might ask yourself. It is engaging the unconscious mind that is the key, and shortening the distance between your thoughts and your writing. Freewriting is not academic writing, but it is an invaluable precursor or complement to academic writing.
People react very differently to freewriting. In my experience, mathematicians, scientists, engineers and those training to be lawyers are among those who find it most beneficial. There is much you can learn from freewriting. Here are some of the benefits of freewriting that students have identified on courses I have run:
It emptied my head of the buzz of thoughts so that I could think more clearly. It made me realise I knew much more than I thought I did.
It ’s great for making room for ideas to emerge and then making connections between them.
The problem became clear to me. I was avoiding seeing the Professor, but I needed to see him to get the section written.
It really organised my thoughts. Something I wasn ’t expecting.
Over time, I think it ’s loosened up my formal writing. I’m finding myself becoming more expressive, not so straitlaced ... even with my technical writing.
Freewriting helps reduce the distance between what I think and what I write. It was quite a release ... and a relief!
And one psychology lecturer:
I now use 10 minutes of freewriting routinely before I start a bout of writing for a journal article. It clears my head and gets my writing muscles working
In summary, freewriting can help by:
✵encouraging you to start writing, rather than holding back
✵’brainstorming’ - making and developing connections
✵exploring a topic
✵warming yourself up before a session of academic writing releasing writing blocks, both cognitive and emotional ones
✵helping make your academic writing more expressive and fluent
✵broadening your active vocabulary (the words you use in speech or writing)
✵encouraging expression of ’unconscious mind’, such as encouraging you to ’go for it’ when writing your first draft
✵benefiting your health and wellbeing. There is plentiful evidence for the value of writing down thoughts and feelings (see, for example, Lepore and Smyth, 2002).
As Elbow (1981, p.15) put it: ’[Freewriting] doesn’t always produce powerful writing itself, but it leads to powerful writing.’ I recommend you give freewriting a chance. It only takes 5-15 minutes, and its benefits far outweigh the little time it takes. Even freewriting just once or twice a week, or when you get stuck, will reap benefits. But it has many more uses than that, and for some people at least, becomes an indispensible adjunct to their academic writing. I leave it to you to consider exactly how and when you might choose to use it.
What do you do with freewriting afterwards?
Once you have done some freewriting, what do you do with it? This rather depends on your purpose in doing it, what emerged from the process, and the kind of person you are. Some people I know keep their freewriting because they never know when it’s going to prove useful. They might read what they have written weeks and months later to see how their thoughts have developed since. I know some who have analysed their writing to see how their sentence constructions and forms of expression have evolved. Many keep their freewriting if it informs something they’re working on. Many others throw their freewriting away once it has served its purpose - clearing their head, releasing some pent up emotion, exploring their thoughts to help them organise their work. It is up to you what you do with your freewriting.