June 5

I bet you’ve never tried free writing like this before


    Haha, don't worry, I won't ask you to mix bizarre yoga poses and writing. Sounds dangerous. But I do want to re-introduce a concept that you probably already think you know how to do: free writing.

    During a creative writing class back in college, I remember sitting around a square table in a seminar room. Our instructor asked us to do a free writing exercise. He picked a prompt and told us to just “write whatever came to us” for 20 minutes. So, I picked up my pen, wrote a bit, stared off into the distance, accidentally caught eyes with another student across the table, re-focused my attention on my paper, wrote a bit more, and continued on like that for the remained of the 20 minutes.

    Since then, I’ve felt that free writing was somewhat of a waste of time. Why should I write about some random topic, when I have plenty of perfect good topics to write about already?

    Well, I didn’t know what free writing really was until I read Mark Levy’s book, Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content. I think free writing, as it’s meant to be practiced, could turn my writing (and business and life in general) around for the better.

    Your brain has all the “raw material” you need for your writing.

    Your mind contains more thoughts, information, associations, and ideas than you could ever actually sort through, even with the most concerted effort. When you dream, when you cross a familiar street intersection, when you smell bacon early in the morning, these situations bring about memories and thoughts completely without your intention. Levy would argue that many (perhaps most) of your thoughts cannot be accessed through sheer will.

    What a conundrum for writers! We have so much “raw material” sitting around in our brain, jumping out at us during inopportune moments. Is there a way to tap into this mine of raw material at will?

    Yes, free writing pushes your brain to think longer, deeper, and more unconventionally than it normally would. Free writing is essentially a form of forced creativity that actually works.

    You think you know what free writing is?

    I can pretty much guarantee you haven’t tried free writing like Mark Levy describes it.

    Here are the basic steps:

    1. Set a timer for 5, 10, or 20 minutes, whatever increment you’re comfortable with.

    2. Hands to pen and paper or keyboard, whichever your preference.

    3. Pick a prompt, if you like, or just set your mind at ease.

    4. Write as fast as reasonably possible, no pauses, no breaks, no breathers, for the full allotment of the time. Even if you have to type “umm” 10 times in a row or repeat the same word over and over until your brain can catch up with your hands, you just keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. Don’t look back, don’t delete, don’t correct spelling mistakes. Press on until the timer rings.

    Some helpful ground rules:

    Try easy. Levy emphasizes that you have to set your mind at ease. No one will read your free writing. Don’t expect words of genius to fall from your pen like rain from a cloud. Give yourself permission to simply write, with no expectations that this writing will ever produce anything useful.

    Write fast and continuously. I would imagine that when you’re typically writing, you think at a much slower pace than normal. Try to push your brain closer to a normal rate of thought, which will probably feel approximately twice as fast as your typical “writing rate.” The goal here is not high quality words or even fully formed thoughts. The goal is to push past your internal editor. If you’re writing faster than your internal editor, then you’re beginning to tap into the raw material that’s waiting in the recesses of your mind. If you're not writing as fast as you reasonably can, though, you won't be able to tap into that raw material.

    Work against a limit Using a timer keeps you focused and reassures you that you only have to keep up this uncomfortably fast pace for a short period of time. You can do anything for 5, 10, or 20 minutes. Write for the full time allotment, and stop as soon as that timer rings. In order for your mind to get comfortable with free writing, you have to strike the bargain with yourself: I’ll write for 20 minutes at an accelerated pace but only for 20 minutes.

    If you get to the end of an idea, ask yourself a new question. Sometimes you’ll reach the end of a particular thought, hit the “.” key, and not know which way to turn. This is free writing, though. You’re not required to write in a linear, logical pattern. Pick a new question, a new thought, a new problem, and just keep writing.

    The habit of free writing could transform your writing life.

    Certainly, you could use free writing to get through a writer’s block, but if an exercise is beneficial, why not make it a habit? If free writing really can help you make associations and generate ideas that otherwise might not bubble up to the surface of your mind, then perhaps you should practice free writing on a regular basis.

    Levy is actually a business consultant. Yes, he writes, but he primarily uses free writing to help his clients work through problems in their sales, management, and organization problems. In the business world, his free writing techniques are becoming something of a phenomenon, known for helping individuals harness innovative business ideas.

    This promise that free writing could help in many different areas of life spurred me on to embrace free writing as a habit. At least once a day, I set my iPhone timer to 10, 15, or 20 minutes and allow myself to just free write. I find that I’m generating ideas and working through problems related to everything from writing, business, and family. Sometimes I didn’t even recognize that there was a problem, but the free writing helped me grasp both the problem and a variety of solutions.

    What if free writing every day could help you see all aspects of your own life, including your writing life, from an entirely new, innovative perspective? I’d say it’s worth a shot.

    Try free writing now.

    Go ahead. You spent 5-10 minutes reading this article. How about 10 more minutes of free writing? Instead of clicking over to Facebook or another blog, close all your windows and set a timer.

    If you need a prompt here are some of my favorites:

    “If I didn’t have to work, I’d…”

    “I threw a stone, and it landed…”

    “I remember…”

    “I’d love to learn about…”

    “The simplest thing I could do to make a difference would be…”

    “You know what I’d like to do again? …”

    “I opened the door…”

    Delve deeper into free writing.

    If this article has piqued your interest, you should definitely read the whole book. Levy has a wealth of insights into the practice of free writing that have convinced me to rearrange my writing life. He details an ingenious system for creating a work flow so that your short sessions of free writing can funnel into your long-term writing projects and into publishable pieces. Check out the book here: Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content

    What about you?

    Have you ever tried this kind of free writing before? Are you inspired to try now? Give it a go, and let me know how you like it in the comments below!

    (Look at that rhyming, right off the top of my free-writing infused head. That's right. And now please feel free to laugh and shake your head at me. But DO leave a comment. :)


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