Freewriting (and why you should do it)

by Sara Goas

Freewriting is an excellent technique for overcoming creative fears and breaking through writer’s block. Popularized by author Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way, the freewriting process consists of sitting down with a paper and pen, allowing yourself to scrawl whatever comes to mind. Freewriting means granting yourself the freedom (see the connection?) to pour your thoughts out on the page, without the compulsive need to judge, correct, and edit as you go.

Some folks time their freewriting experiences; others make sure to fill up a certain amount of pages, generally around two or three in a sitting. Some writers make sure their pen never leaves the sheet of paper; others write more leisurely. Whatever your preference, just make sure that you throw grammar and punctuation to the wind, and accept that much of what you write will be senseless and silly (“I forgot to call my mother yesterday… My husband doesn’t care for our new curtains, but I like them just fine…”). It doesn’t matter what you write. It only matters that you are writing. No idea is too absurd or mundane to pop up on a page during a freewriting session, and no one else will ever read what you have written. There is no wrong way to freewrite.

Every time I teach English, I tell each of my students to keep a freewriting notebook. We’re going to freewrite every day, I say. I assure the students, repeatedly, that freewriting assignments will never be graded for grammar or content; the only way to get full credit on these is simply to fill up as much space as possible. When grading the notebooks, I just flip quickly through to make sure there are words on the pages (I don’t want the students to edit themselves, for fear that I might be reading their ultra-personal passages).

At the start of each class, I put a freewriting prompt on the board, usually something loosely related to what we are covering (“Of all the characters in Romeo and Juliet, which would you most want as a friend?”). Don’t ask questions, I tell the students. Don’t think too much. Just write. Write whatever comes to mind.

Now, remember when I said that there’s no wrong way to freewrite?

Turns out, there actually is.

“I don’t understand the prompt!” the kids will wail. “What kind of answers are you looking for?”

“I’m not looking for any specific answers,” I say, slowly and patiently. “Just write. If you don’t understand the question, just make something up. It’s okay.”

“What if I don’t want any of the characters as friends?” another student will ask.

“Then write that. Write whatever comes to mind when you look at this question. Go off on a tangent. It’s okay.”

Some kids stare at their notebooks. When I look at them questioningly, they tell me they are “thinking.”

“You should be thinking on the page,” I say. They nod. And still stare.

To alleviate some of these issues, I tried making the prompts as vague as possible: “What’s on your mind today? Write about whatever you choose.”

“Nothing’s on my mind today,” the kids will reply. And I’ll wonder if perhaps I should have gone to culinary school.

Some students will finally grasp the concept of freewriting. At which point, they’ll announce that the whole thing is pointless and silly.

“But it’s not,” I explain, over and over again, year after year. “This is a writing warm-up. You wouldn’t play a football game or run a marathon without warming up a little first, would you?”

But somehow, the students never see sports and writing as quite the same thing.

I can’t blame these kids for their confusion. For most of their writing lives, they’ve been told to write specific answers on specific topics, and usually in specific lengths and formats. Like The Shawshank Redemption’s Brooks Hatlen falling apart in the outside world after having spent most of his life in prison, my students don’t know what to do with freedom. Freedom doesn’t make sense. Freedom causes panic.

But as diligent writers freewrite regularly, they will soon find that the process breaks down the barriers of self-editing and doubt, and encourages creativity to flow unchecked. Some may come to terms with feelings and emotions they didn’t realize they had. They may see short story and poem ideas appear before them on the page.

Best of all, when they finish freewriting, they will feel like writing again.

Next year, instead of giving prompts, I’m going to instruct my students to write about whatever they choose. I’m going to tell them that they will be expected to start writing as soon as the bell rings, and they are not to stop until I stop them. They’ll complain at first, of course, and they’ll groan and say they can’t imagine why I’m torturing them in this way.

But I refuse to give up on freewriting.

And–as much as they’d love to–I won’t let my students give up on it, either.

Next week: The Ins and Outs of Outlining


Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.

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14 Responses to “Freewriting (and why you should do it)”

  1. Freewriting is only one way to brainstorm and practice writing on paper, and it doesn’t work for everyone. I much prefer mind mapping — and freewriting often feels to me to be artificial and uncomfortable, since I have such a hard time turning off the editor in my head. What I like about mind mapping and other graphical brainstorming methods is the freedom to not think linearly, which freewriting forces me to do by keeping me from going back and revising and changing what’s already there. Yes, I agree that freewriting is a useful exercise, particularly for those who don’t write in other ways, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way of limbering up the mind for everyone.

  2. Ideally, when you freewrite you shouldn’t necessarily be thinking linearly…ideally, you shouldn’t be thinking at all…

    The kind of freewriting I’m talking about isn’t so much intended as a way of to brainstorm for an actual project or assignment. I see it as more of a warm up to sort of kickstart creativity for the day. When my students come into class, I just want them to write their thoughts and feeling out on paper. When we actually do an assignment, they are free to brainstorm however they see fit, and many do choose a form of mapping out their ideas.

    Of course, if I were to check freewriting journals during the year and see page after page filled with mind-mapping, I’d be totally fine with that. As long as the kids are pouring out their ideas and warming up their writing muscles, I’m happy :)

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