Let’s go back to 2008.
I was a shy university student at one of her first Creative Writing classes.
And we were told to free write.
And I came up with nothing.
This became a weekly exercise in some of our classes.
And I hated it.
Sometimes we had a prompt, sometimes we didn’t.
But the outcome—for me—was always the same.
It was either crickets, or 💩
Some of my classmates came up with great ideas during our free writing sessions. But I never did.
I decided free writing wasn’t for me.
Then I decided to publish What Happens in New York in a year.
The only way I could get the idea out of my system fast enough to do everything else that needed doing alongside it, was to free write.
I didn’t make a conscious decision to free write. I sat down with a goal of 1,000 words per day and didn’t stop until I reached my goal (or I ran out of steam, which was usually way beyond the 1,000 words).
I reached my 50,000 word target in just over a month, all while working full-time and moving house.
It’s this free writing practice that has enabled me to write 14,000 words in a day. On a really good day, I can write 1,000 words in 10 or 15 minutes. That is the power of free writing.
So what is free writing?
Free writing is when you write with no filter. No distractions. There’s nothing but you and your characters.
Some writers love it, others loathe it. How you approach your free writing session can dramatically influence how you feel about it.
I love this description of free writing from The Bookseller:
- Freewriting is a practice that helps to liberate your writer’s voice and connects you to the vibrant stream of creativity that lies just under the surface of our ordinary thinking.
- Freewriting can be used to launch you over a writer’s block, to explore painful emotional memories, and to work out problems in a longer work. It can be used for making contact with one’s own unconscious.
- Freewriting is a simple, structured practice that is flexible and forgiving. It can be used as the base of a writing practice, or spontaneously whenever you want to go deeper into a subject.
What do you need to get started?
You need to let go.
‘But I’m a massive control freak,’ you say.
‘Me too,’ I reply.
‘No, really,’ I reply. ‘But I’ve learnt that in order to become a better writer, I must let go. I must let my characters speak through me. I must have faith in the editing process. And most importantly, I must have faith in myself.’
Benefits of free writing
- It teaches self-trust
- It makes you a better writer
- You can get your ideas down faster. This is the hardest part of the writing process. As Jodi Picoult once said, ‘You can’t edit a blank page.’
I’ve also written a post on the psychological benefits of free writing if you want to know more about how it can help you.
How to get started free writing
Write something you love
Free writing is most effective when you care about what you’re writing about.
If you don’t care about it, you’ll struggle to come up with ideas for it.
And you won’t be able to immerse yourself in it as much, because you’re just not as interested in it.
I was able to free write What Happens in New York because I care deeply about the characters and sharing their stories. I wanted to spend time with them almost as much as I wanted to spend time with Boyfriend.
On the other hand, when I worked on NaNoWriMo, I struggled to free write towards the end. I started to resent the piece I was working on. I hadn’t planned the story out as much as I’d thought. Had I done so, I would’ve realised that there wasn’t enough plot to carry it all the way to 50,000 words.
Which leads me nicely on to…
Plan what you want to write
If you go into a free writing session with no idea what scenes you want to write, and no end point, it’s hard. That’s part of why I struggled with these sessions at university. It was a little too free, and I didn’t trust myself.
Pick a scene and plan out your beginning and end. Having an end point makes it a lot easier. You wouldn’t run a race without knowing where you’re going. Why should your writing session be any different?Having an end point makes your #writing session a lot easier. You wouldn’t run a race without knowing where you're going. Why should writing be any different? Click To Tweet
Find somewhere you’re relaxed
Another reason I couldn’t free write in class was because I wasn’t relaxed.
Putting someone on the spot and telling them to free write is mean. It’s not that different from putting someone on the spot in an exam. The only difference is that you may not have to show anyone the results of your writing session.
To free write effectively, you must be completely relaxed.
This is why I write many of my first drafts at home on our sofa.
Find a space where you feel comfortable zoning out for a little while.To free write effectively, you must be 100% relaxed. #writetip Click To Tweet
Wherever you are, you need to be comfortable.
If you’re not sitting (or standing) comfortably, you’ll be too distracted by how uncomfortable you are to get any writing done.
Everything from the lighting to the smell in the room can affect how you feel. Never underestimate how much your environment can affect you.
Also choose a writing method that you’re most comfortable with. For me, that’s on my laptop, but there’s nothing to stop you from writing by hand, on your phone, or even on a typewriter.
Turn off your notifications.
Put some headphones on.
Close the door.
Escape reality for as long as you need to.
Let the music play
Stephen King likes to write to heavy rock music.
I have playlists for every character, story, and mood.
That way, I can quickly get into the right mindset for a scene.
Spotify and Apple Music have playlists for every mood and every occasion, so even if you don’t have the time to create such playlists yourself, you can still easily access playlists to put you in the right mood.
If you find music too distracting, try listening to classical music or white noise instead.
Set a timer
Have an end point, but don’t clock watch.
The point is to switch off.
Set your timer, then let it do its thing.
If you find yourself getting stuck, you either set yourself a timer for too long or didn’t plan enough.
Don’t hit delete
One of the most important parts of free writing is not editing.
You can edit as much as you like later.
DO NOT DO IT NOW.
Turn your monitor off or use a typewriter if you have to.
When you edit as you write, you censor yourself.
You tell yourself that your idea is bad before it’s had chance to grow.When you edit as you write, you censor yourself. You tell yourself that your idea is bad before it’s had chance to grow. #amwriting Click To Tweet
Write every idea down.
You can always get rid of the bad ones later.
If you don’t get the bad ideas out of your system, they act like a plug to your creativity. Your creativity can’t flow as freely, and so you won’t be able to get to the good stuff.
Remember: we edit for a reason.
Don’t bother trying to write a perfect first draft.
Even some of the most respected and loved writing is heavily edited.
To Kill a Mockingbird wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for an editor.
Raymond Carver’s editor cut many of the endings of his short stories. He went on to become famous for these abrupt endings, and it wasn’t even his doing! Never underestimate the power of a good editor.
No first draft is perfect. Have faith in the editing process.
The more you free write, the better you’ll be at getting your ideas down the right way first time.The more you free write, the better you’ll be at getting your ideas down how you want first time. #writetip Click To Tweet
If at first you don’t succeed…
You need the right ingredients and the right tools for free writing to work.
However, even then it still isn’t for everyone.
Give it a good go before you decide this, though—try different locations, music, and topics. Plan extensively, and not at all.
It could be something small like the wrong chair that affects how effective your session is.
Your environment has a huge effect on how productive you are at every stage of the writing process.
So does your confidence in your writing ability.
If you’re not confident as a writer, you won’t trust yourself enough to sit and write without censoring yourself.
There are two ways you can get over this: by free writing some more, and by sharing your work with other people.
Confidence grows with time and practise.
It does not grow when you insist that you can’t do something and therefore you won’t even try. Keep an open mind, and your writing skills will improve much faster.
Over to You
How do you feel about free writing? Do you find it effective? I’d love to hear about your experiences with free writing in the comments!