Our Annual Summer Writing Tips and Tools Post: Freewriting Focus

9 Jun

Becoming a Steady Writer

My first confession:  I can say, like many academics who write, that I like having written.  That is, I like the satisfaction of having gotten an idea to paper and the engagement with peers that comes with talking over ideas that have made their way into print.

My second confession:  I can say, unlike many academics who write, that I like writing.  The whole mess of it – and I especially like those moments when I find myself in the middle of writing myself out of stuck spaces, whether these happen at the beginning, middle or end of a writing process.

Likely that explains why the consistent teaching role across my academic life involves being a teacher of writing, whether working with undergraduates, graduate and postdoctoral scholars, or faculty tackling new writing formats, genres, audiences and platforms.

As that teacher of writing and mentor to others who are writing, I’ve posted here once a year to point toward writing tools and to suggest more writing-welcoming practices.  Those early posts pointed to, for example, the Shut Up and Write process, and suggested planning for luck strategies.

Having spent one lovely mid-May week in the company of 15 other academics in a writing retreat, I find myself coming back to a core writing practice that underscores my practices as a teacher or writing, as a teaching consultant, and as a producer of academic writing in a number of formats and forums.

That core practice is freewriting, and engaging with that process has shaped me as a steady writer – that is, someonewho has adapted strategies set out in research conducted by rhetorician Peter Elbow and psychologist Robert Boice.  

Had I not encountered Elbow and Boice on paper – and in the practices of my rhetoric teaching mentor Cleo Martin – I would not have come to say that I am a writer who likes writing even more than having written.

Writing and the Growth Mindset

Peter Elbow’s research on writing and writers spans a wonderfully rich teaching and writing career.  As the scholar most known for the freewriting phrase, Elbow offers this practice of letting words come out while putting pen to paper – fingers to keyboard, voice to adaptive software – as a contrast to school writing where planning and correctness are emphasized above process and execution.

Elbow, in Writing without Teachers, describes freewriting in this way:

The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). 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. If you can’t think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write “I can’t think what to say, I can’t think what to say” as many times as you want; or repeat the last word you wrote over and over again; or anything else. The only requirement is that you never stop.

Most importantly, freewriting is a nonediting mode:

It is an exercise in bringing together the process of producing words and putting them down on the page. Practiced regularly, it undoes the ingrained habit of editing at the same time you are trying to produce. It will make writing less blocked because words will come more easily….

Next time you write, notice how often you stop yourself from writing down something you were going to write down. Or else cross it out after it’s been written. “Naturally,” you say, “it wasn’t any good.” But think for a moment about the occasions when you spoke well. Seldom was it because you first got the beginning right. Usually it was a matter of a halting or even a garbled beginning, but you kept going and your speech finally became coherent and even powerful. There is a lesson here for writing: trying to get the beginning just right is a formula for failure – and probably a secret tactic to make yourself give up writing. Make some words, whatever they are, and then grab hold of that line and reel in as hard as you can. Afterwards you can throw away lousy beginnings and make new ones. This is the quickest way to get into good writing.

I’ve come to value freewriting as part of a growth mindset – writing is possible, writing goals are reachable, writers are not born but made through practices that involve experimentation, rehearsal, stretching muscles, engaging colleagues, and accumulation of skills over time in a process that includes writing oneself out of stuck places in order to increase fluency as a writer and comfort with writing.

It is that fixed mindset – only some people can write; some people are born with the gift of writing; some people can master writing formalities required for publication – that keeps most people from writing.

Write as Quickly as You Can, Not as Well as You Can

Early in teaching writing to undergraduate – just as I was moved into being a graduate student who would write three graduate theses – an advisor asked me to read a Robert Boice study presented in the 1989 article, “Procrastination, Busyness and Binging.” For me, this passage reporting on Boice’s study of faculty writers reflected how wrote two masters theses, composed teaching-related documents, and created conference presentations:

Participants in Boice’s study were divided into three groups:

(a) The first group (“controls”) did not change their writing habits, and continued to write occasionally in big blocks of time; in 1 year they wrote an average of 17 pages;
(b) the second group wrote daily and kept a daily record; they averaged 64 pages;
(c) the third group wrote daily, kept a daily record, and held themselves accountable to someone weekly; this group’s average was 157 pages.

As the default writing tools for the daily writing, I then stuffed blank index cards or recycled typing paper (yup, that was a while ago) and multiple pens into the two bookbags I most often carried; now, I can open the Note application on whatever electronic device I have at hand.  Places to write – and platforms that allow me to see that I have written, as well as to draw ideas from what I have written into next rounds of writing and thinking.

For most of the writers participating in that writing May retreat – not surprisingly – the 15 minutes of freewriting that began each day was initially both something new and something to question.  By week’s end, that combination of short writing bursts, sustained writing periods, and breaks that involved talking with other writers about writing – one’s own words and ideas as well as the practice generally – had helped each writer negotiate various stuck places:

Rather than procrastinate by checking email or Facebook, some of my colleague found themselves using the freewriting strategy to write out of a stuck place – perhaps by experimenting at the keyboard to create three different ways to frame a particular idea, perhaps by writing with all books and notes closed, perhaps by setting out what would be an entirely “left field” or “wrong” way to express the troubling idea.  Another cluster of colleague might well have walked away from their keyboards to pour coffee in the communal kitchen where others were also interested in talking through an idea.

No common coffee room, or colleagues in another part of the world?

That’s when I like having Instant Messaging options.  If I’m starting my work day with 9 am writing in Minnesota, there are colleague in the same time zone taking on the same challenge, as well as colleagues in the United Kingdom who see that their clocks have ticked to an afternoon writing period that begins at 3 pm – and who can chime in for a couple of idea swapping minutes.

When I schedule longer writing periods, the words and ideas I accumulate during the short bouts allow me to “quick start” a first draft of whatever I’m sat down to write.  The 15 minute strategy also comes to my aid when I need to hash out introductions, to compose signposting paragraphs that track the development of ideas across an essay, or to create a record of an idea that may – or may not – be useful as I come back to the revision rounds of any writing project.

Inger Mewburn (ThesisWhisperer) says this of her freewriting use:

Freewriting is one exercise I will do on my own, in fact, any time I am stuck in any writing project – be it a blog, article or report. If I feel the urge to look at Facebook or my email (a sure sign I am stuck) I will start freewriting a couple of paragraphs, or for a specified length of time right into the document I am writing. Sometimes I change the font, just in case I am interrupted and have to come back to it later. I find this an excellent way to generate new ideas and get my flow back. I then spend time cleaning it up and seeing if there is any good stuff I can use. Sometimes I end up deleting all the freewriting I did, but this is rare.

Tools You Can Use

  • Prompt Generators – The idea is to get started with writing, to move quickly from blank screen to quickly starting the day’s writing; topic for and type of writing matters far less than the actions of writing.
    • The Write Prompts:  Each day of the week offers a different type of writing prompt.  Journal Mondays.  Image Tuesdays. One word Thursdays.  Continue on Saturdays.  I’m not a writer of poetry or fiction or screenplays – and this site works for me because I am not a writer in the genres offered to me a prompts.  I often find that the idea I had in mind at the close of writing a day or so before comes into focus as I look at the on screen prompt, which has nothing to do with what I have been writing – and has everything to do with jump starting my thinking through writing for the day.  http://www.thewriteprompts.com
    • One Minute Writer:  The homepage includes a prompt of the day and a countdown timer for the minute of writing.  The time’s out signal is noticeable to me when I write but not distracting to others around me.  Again, the prompts aren’t “academic” and in that they are entirely freeing.  The prompt as I write today – Worst Visitor.  As I’m thinking about a writing project where I am wrestling with whether or not to cite a particular piece of scholarship, I find I have a few things to say about that article as a bad visitor.  The, again, idea is jump into writing, to leverage the prompt as a jumping off point – to start the day, or as an adventure during a sustained writing period.  http://oneminutewriter.blogspot.com
  • Writing Platforms – Who doesn’t need a bit of reward and motivation for writing?  And maybe even an audience?  Again, neither of these web-based platforms is designed with academic writers in mind – and that’s what I’ve found useful when I need a space to just get on with writing.  With both Ilys and Final Deadline, I’m able to shush that fixed mindset voice – the angle on my shoulder, the blaring of what Anne Lamott calls Radio KFKD – by seeing my screen display only characters or words accumulating toward goal I’ve set, and occasional scrolling of encouraging words when I meet a goal.
    • Ilys:  Encourages writing – one letter at a time until you meet the word count target you’ve chosen.  On reviewing the words that have accumulated, you can make edits, then return to writing the word target), and then you can edit.   To keep what you’ve written, a simple copy and paste will allow you to set up a record on your own computer.  I’ve come back to Ilys at the end of the day – it remembers me and my writing without a login – to revisit an idea well begun. http://ilys.com/
    • Final Deadline:  Again, as a writer, you set a deadline and the platform shows your word count increasing. Editing on screen is possible – actually, easy.  But not as rewarding as watching word counts increase as I set new targets – and reach them, with phrases like “Keep on writing!” and “Brilliant!” scrolling across the screen at regular intervals.  Users can set up accounts within Final Deadline to save materials generated in the basic tool – and to take advantage of other tools the site offers, such as Scrawl Taskmaster, which you can set up to prohibit deleting of text – those tiny and large acts of editing – while writing.  Taskmaster makes loud noises when you stop paying attention (20 minutes without pausing more than 8 seconds) or try to interrupted for the timeline. http://www.finaldeadline.co.uk/resources.html

My third confession: To walk the talk, I made use of the tools described here for the generative writing for this post, and composed this post as I typically would create a first draft of any other writing I was required to – or opting to – complete on a deadline: from that generative writing, I composed each chunk during a single sustained writing day, coming back now at the end of the day for a first pass at editing.  Writing quickly, taking some time with the first edits, making room for a next draft that may well replace this one before summer’s end.

Follow Up Note:

On 2 July 2014 we’ll publish “Fully Caffeinated: A Trio of Writing Resources” to feature a couple of tiny tools that can have a big impact on your writing life.



One Response to “Our Annual Summer Writing Tips and Tools Post: Freewriting Focus”

  1. Monique 22 April 2021 at 4:45 pm #

    Great post and information. This is an informative article and I am thankful for sharing this blog.

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