Writing Techniques: Part II – Free writing

January 15, 2009 in Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

Following on from my previous post about keeping the writing and editing phases of my writing separate, I went back to a technique I learnt last year but seldom put into action – free writing.

What is free writing?

I didn’t even know it was called free writing when I first practised it at a writing course.  Essentially, it is a technique which requires you to first think of a topic or a scene in your head, set a time frame (say 5 minutes) and then just start writing.  The key is to keep your pen moving (or your hands typing) no matter what and capture first thoughts.

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, even if it’s complete garbage or doesn’t make any sense.  You just keep doing it until the time’s up.  Then you have a look at what you’ve written, and fix it up into something more presentable.

Sounds easy?  I found it bloody hard.  I still do.

glengarry-glen-rossWhat’s the point of it?

According to David Mamet, the writer of the awesome play and film Glengarry Glen Ross:

“The purpose of the technique is to free the unconscious.  If you follow the rules ploddingly, thy will allow your unconscious to be free.  That’s true creativity.  If not you will be restricted by your conscious mind.  Because the conscious mind always wants to be liked.  The conscious mind is always going to suggest the obvious, the cliche, because these things offer the security of having succeeded in the past.  Only the mind that has been taken off itself and put on a task is allowed true creativity.”

So essentially, free writing is a tool to help you get your imagination onto paper.  If nothing, it at least helps you get a lot of words down.

Does it work?

It’s no secret that I had been struggling with my fantasy novel lately.  I’ve been mulling over just about every word I write and nothing good seems to be getting produced.  So this morning, I went back to give the technique another shot.  I imagined a short scene and just let my fingers fly.

It was brutal – the temptation was always lurking, telling to stop, to fix typos, to read over what I just wrote.  But I kept at it as best as I could.  I can’t honestly say I followed the rules perfectly, because there were pauses in between, but I tried to keep the cheating to a bare minimum.  So it wasn’t pure free writing.  It was only semi-free, but semi-free is better than no-free.

By the end of a couple of goes I ended up with two very short chapters.  Around 1,200 words.  I certainly didn’t spray my thermal pants over the number of words and the quality of the writing, but at least I got it down.  I did a little bit of tinkering with it afterwards so it made sense, but I’m going to resist the urge to go back and fix it up properly and press on with the rest of the story.

Read more about it

If you want to find out more about free writing, a good starting point is the Wikipedia entry on it.  It has a complete list of the rules you should follow.

Peter Elbow, Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron have all written about it.

PS: I forgot to add this before – but maybe those (rare) times when you’re writing and you feel like you’re on fire and can’t stop because everything is coming together perfectly in your mind and transitioning seamlessly onto the page/screen- that’s probably what true free writing is like.  Wouldn’t it be great if I could write like that every time I sat in front of my computer?