“Freewriting may seem crazy but actually it makes simple sense,” Peter Elbow notes in Writing Without Teachers. Freewriting does make sense, because every piece of writing advice I have ever received boils down to one simple rule: you need to write to become a better writer. Freewriting is one of the simplest, and yet most challenging, writing practices.
For Elbow, freewriting is the best way to exercise your voice, the main source of power in your writing. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg explains that freewriting helps you unleash the power of your first thoughts. Both veteran writing teachers argue that our internal editor or censor inhibits writing and offer freewriting as the treatment. Goldberg explains that we are too often worried about the value of our words or the unintended message our writing will send to both ourselves and others. We are afraid of being vulnerable and so we carefully edit our words before they hit the page. Elbow blames the negative feedback we have received in the past, often in school, that warns us away from making mistakes. Whether we are editing thoughts and feelings or simply focusing on word choice and spelling, this type of “compulsive, premature editing” is the best method to make sure you hate writing (Elbow 6).
Elbow argues that regular freewriting exercises are the “most effective way I know to improve your writing.” He suggests freewriting at least three times a week in Writing Without Teachers and offers these simple rules:
Don’t stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing.
Elbow suggests keeping a freewriting diary in which you write “a brief mind sample” for at least 10 minutes every day. This journal entry should not require thought or preparation, just writing about what you are thinking about at the moment.
In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg notes that timed exercises are the basic unit of writing practice. She explains that the power of these exercises is simply letting yourself write down your “first thoughts.” These first thoughts have tremendous energy because your internal censor has not interfered and they are unencumbered by ego.
Goldberg recommends you start with short spurts (10 or 20 minutes) and work your way up to an hour, but the time is less important than following the simple rules. Similar to Elbow’s advice, Goldberg says:
- Keep your hands moving
- Don’t cross out
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar
- Lose control
- Don’t think
- Go for the jugular
Goldberg simply suggests: “Give me this moment. Write whatever’s running through you.”
Freewriting is the simplest writing exercise there is and yet it is the most powerful. Many writers start every day with a quick freewrite just to get their writing muscles warmed up for the day. Regular freewrites will help you find your voice and unleash your secrets. When was the last time you used freewriting to develop your writing muscles and unleash your voice?