Free Writing: Exploring the Unknown

all work and no play.jpgSit around and talk with enough writers, bloggers, and creative types and eventually someone is going to talk about free writing.  For me, it always conjures up images of Stephen King’s The Shining and the endless iterations of, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  Of course, tread in these waters long enough and sooner or later you will be getting drug advice from someone to, “Take your creativity to the next level man.”  Well, I won’t be offering any drug advice today.  Instead, I thought I would talk about two of the most common methods of free writing and give you all some pointers on what to focus on when taking advantage of this great creative tool.

Free writing is basically non-stop writing.  You set a timer, begin handwriting or typing, and do not stop moving your hands/fingers until the timer sounds. You don’t worry about grammar, or spelling, or even if what you are writing makes sense. What this does is connect your minds-eye to your medium and overrides the analytical part of your brain that wants things to be structured and tidy.  Whatever thoughts come into your head go down on the paper or screen unfiltered.

The two most common types of free writing are structured and unstructured.  We’ll begin with the latter.

freewriting meme (template).jpgUnstructured free writing is a way to generate new and fresh ideas.  Maybe you just finished writing your last novel and are sitting down to begin the next. Maybe you are sitting down  to write for the first time ever (good on you). Regardless, the cursor is waiting there, blinking, winking—by God it’s mocking you!  No ideas manage to find their way to your fingers. Don’t freak out, go freestyle!

Set the timer for ten minutes (or whatever time your comfortable with) and just start writing, even if you are simply writing, “I can’t think of anything to write” over and over again.  Write and Revise for Publication, by Jack Smith, explains that,”…even if you keep writing, ‘I can’t think of anything to say,’ over and over, eventually you’ll tire of this and ask why can’t I?  And then let the answer take you to a subject, which will the lead to another subject, and so on” (p. 47-48).  He continues on to say, “Or you might cheat a little and look around and see an object – a tree, anything – and start writing about it.”

Structured free writing allows you to expand or build on an idea you already have.  You have a great idea for a character, plot, world, or conflict; it just doesn’t have any depth yet. Fear not, the solution could be a few minutes away.  The only difference between unstructured and structured is this time you have a jumping-off point. Exactly like in unstructured, you set a timer and begin writing.  Again, don’t worry about spelling or if it’s making sense. Just run with it.  Run with it until your stomach churns and you begin to vomit those words onto paper straight from the creative whirlpool of you mind.

spilled ink.jpgIt’s always easiest to start structured free writing by beginning with a character, conflict, or setting in mind.  The reason for this is simple, for the most part, we enjoy stories because of the characters, conflicts, and settings.  Is it any surprise these things are typically the most enjoyable to write about?

So here’s the premise.  Take the rough image of the character you are thinking about creating, toss them into a situation, set the timer, and see where you two go together. Launch them into space; write their birth; write their death; write about what they do on the toilet; write about what they do between the sheets; write about their awkward teen years; write about that one time they ate a sandwich and got food poisoning—just write.  Set the timer and don’t stop.  

Will you get anything usable from this?  Who knows.  What it is doing is cementing in your mind who your characters are and what they are about.  We all have that friend or family member we know so well we can pretty much guess what they are going to say or do in any given situation.  If we want believable characters, then we should know them just as well (if not better).

Conflicts.  Who doesn’t love a good conflict?  So maybe you have an idea for a conflict and nothing more.  No real characters or setting.  No worries.  Set the timer, start writing about the conflict and don’t stop.

Maybe they are in space/underwater and running out of air?  Maybe they are mortally wounded?  Maybe they are navigating a particularly annoying dinner party and one of the guests is a shape shifting, man stealing, Jezebel?  Who cares?  Pick a route and run with it.  Don’t like it?  Switch.  There are no rules except that you don’t stop.  When the timer is done check out what you have written. Chances are some characters might have wormed their way into existence and some imagery related to setting can be gleaned.

self doubt.jpg

Many times the biggest issue stopping writers is self-doubt and being overly critical.  We all have story to tell that is trapped away in our heads.  Unfortunately, we stress about structure, grammar, and all those details that don’t really matter so much in the creative process (that’s why revision and editors exist).  Free writing is the heart bypass that allows nutrient rich blood to flow through your creative veins.  When you free write, you do so knowing it’s going to be choppy, sloppy, and insane—there’s no fear of judgement.

As this is a repost, I had some excellent input from past comments.  Amanda, at Mind the Dog Writing Blog, was kind enough to recommend the website Life in 10 Minutes.  Taking her suggestion, I visited the page and was greatly impressed with it.  The page has links to workshops and examples of excerpts.  If you wanted to browse some examples of what can be accomplished, this is a solid place to check out.

question markHave any of you had success with free writing?  Have you heard of or developed different methods?  I’d love to hear about it.  It’s always interesting to see what materializes when I use this technique.  If anything, it’s a nice departure from my normal analytical methods.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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25 responses

  1. Could writing a posting be a form of free writing? One sits down with a burning idea and writes… One’s brain streams the thoughts into something cogent and when one is done we can go back and ‘polish’ what has just been created. But isn’t that first step an offshoot of free writing?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for reading Pete, and yes, it sure could. I mean some “purists” would argue that you would be forced to write the entire thing on a timer without stopping at all – but I’m not one of them. Really it’s just a tool to help us write creative content, no matter what the medium is – blog posts included.


  2. Great post, as seems to be your norm!
    Two things:
    1) I participated in a writing workshop that is all about free writing and loved it. Check out
    2) To one of your last points–check out my blog post “You Know You’re A Writer When,” if you get the chance.
    Thanks for your very well done blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I can’t believe I have never heard of free writing! I’m excited to try it! I tend to be a stubborn perfectionist and edit as I write… I’m sure practicing this will lead to improvement 🙂 Awesome post

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you found something useful! Good luck trying it out. I’m a bit of perfectionist too (hence how long it takes me to write a book) so I understand where you are coming from. Hopefully this will shake up your writing a little. Thanks for reading and posting.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved this post.

    I’m personally trying to get into the habit of writing for at least half an hour every day, even if I sit down with nothing on my mind. (The ten minutes thing is a really good suggestion too, as it pretty much says I have no excuse NOT to write, even for fear of inevitable interruption.)

    Starting with “I have nothing to say” on repeat until something comes is excellent advice, especially considering how much time I spend wracking my brain for an idea before putting anything down. (My brain is so analytical that I feel I need to have an ending established before I even get halfway through my story – that it MUST MAKE SENSE in order to be worth the effort. I think the difficult thing here is to remember that you are writing for yourself, not for an audience. This is a hard mentality to get out of, but free writing would be equally good practice for this as well.)

    I’d also like to know how many times someone has started free writing with the above mantra, found their footing (identified a character or setting, as you say), be on a roll, and then mid-to-3/4’s of the way through be like, “she looked at him and my mind just went blank.” (In such a case, you just keep going, I’m sure.)

    Good post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the great comment and for reading in the first place. I’m pretty analytical as well so I like freewriting every now and then to break up the monotony.

      As for the last thing you said regarding establishing a concept and going blank – my brain tends to go for the insane. “She looked at him and – smacked him in the face, pulled out a machete, melted his eyeballs with mind bullets, etc.” That’s just how my brain seems to malfunction though. I know the goal is to not stop, so I just let it go wherever it wants.

      I think when we start trying to formulate bigger ideas while freewriting we tend to start tapping into the analytical half of our brain and not the creative insane half (the desire to finish a thought or string of thoughts can get in the way of the creative explosions happening). So if your brain goes dead mid-thought, don’t stress or get down on yourself, just jump to something else. If you write for 10 minutes non-stop, you win the prize. Even if all you have is a string of complete nonsense. Best of luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Blurb and Collage « Quintessential Editor

  6. With IIT, I usually start with freewriting around the prompt. I don’t set a timer, but I write whatever comes to mind. If I’m not happy, I scrap the post and move onto another prompt. Quite often though, within the word vomit is the post’s kernel.
    A great post. I’m appreciating the throwbacks as I never seem to get time to go through and read your blog’s archives.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad the reposts don’t feel too redundant. I was hoping I had generated enough past content that the few months time between reposts wouldn’t be too aggravating.

      I was hoping you would respond to this post as your method is obviously very effective. It’s rare to find a writer who so prolifically, and consistently, tackles short stories like you do. I think your ability to step away and move on is very strong asset.

      Thanks for giving the post a read today.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I was curious about how much of your writing is free writing and how much of it was plotted. My assumption (and these are dangerous things) was that you did amounts of both. Given that much of your content is layered and builds. Regardless of your method, it’s very effective.

      Thanks for taking the time to stop in and read today. I still have some posts to catch up on over at your site. I feel like I’ve been missing out 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • It builds but…I don’t really plot anything out. Xp

        I couldn’t tell you how the Clocktower is going to end, much less how the next is going to go. Thankfully that’s a Monday problem. Today is my day off! HOORAY! I haven’t had a proper weekend like this in forever! I’m so relaxed…

        Anyways, sometimes I’ll see bits & pieces of things and then when I go to write I just kind of type what comes to me. In terms of building, particularly with a series of poems…it’s still very much the same. Like continuing from the previous Entry in a series but I still have no clue what will happen.

        You know when you write a novel and you stop. Well, when you go back again, generally you just pick up where you left off right? I’m explaining it poorly but it’s kind of like that. I don’t plot out what happens next. I often only learn what’s going to happen as I’m typing it. I just always thought everyone wrote like that?

        Unless you do outlines and such lol. Xp

        I am terrible at that.

        Regardless, thank you kindly Corey. It is always a pleasure to read your blog as it is to hear from you over in my dark space of the WPverse. I’m humbled you or anyone reads what I write and I’m eternally grateful.

        Cheers! ^_^

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think you are a fine example of a “pantser” if I’ve ever seen one. I’m envious of that. I can fly by the seat of my pants sometimes, but eventually I have to stop and do some outlining or I will run my story into a plot-hole filled chaos explosion. Of course your medium really allows for this free-thinking and really benefits from it as well. Great stuff.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you kindly Corey. It’s nice for sure, but I have never been able to write any other way. See, I am partially envious of those other greats, and yourself. You all can outline something. Plan things ahead, it must be far more peaceful to say the least.

        I remember being in school and when it came to writing outlines, I would always fail miserably. I would tell my teacher, writing is something I love with a passion. I’d always tell her I couldn’t write an outline though to save my soul lol!

        She was kind to me considering. She let me just write what came to me. Mrs. Arp. She was super cool. Kind of like Mrs. Sossich, my 3rd grade teacher from way back. I’m realizing I was blessed with some great teachers in my time. Most notably when it came to English, or literature.

        I’m super lucky for that.

        Many of them had a lasting impact on my life. ^_^

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Freewriting is a bit scary at first. The inner editor in my head started screaming whenever I tried to do it. The first few times were the hardest, but it’s gotten easier. A great way to get over writer’s block. I just remember, no one will see it unless I want them to.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad to see there are writers out there actively using some of the tools I’m talking about. Your last insight is very important, and also something I struggle with myself. It really is hard to separate ourselves from our inner critic sometimes. If only I could push a button and swap a critic for a muse I would be writing gold every day!

      Thanks for sharing and for taking the time to give the post a glance. Best of luck to you with your projects 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Free writing has never been my forte–I tend to edit as I go, and my inner editor won’t quiet down. And I’m okay with that. That said, I love writing in half hour increments. When I gather with writing buddies (online or in person), we set a time for thirty minutes for our ‘word wars.’ Not sure why, but that amount of time seems to work for all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m with you on this. It’s not my forte either. If I find myself free writing, it’s because I’ve exhausted all my other creative tools. It’s the step after I play with world building to generate ideas, and the step before I resort to burning effigies to honor the writing gods.

      Thanks for giving the post a glance and leaving some thoughts. I hope all is well with you.

      Liked by 1 person

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