By Korrina DuffyTimer set. Pen poised. Go!
Free writing is for when you just need to write the damn thing already. If you like many have a bad case of blank page syndrome, free writing helps clear the mental constipation with verbal diarrhea. To free write, all you need is a pen and paper and a commitment to not stop moving your pen even if all you can think to write is “shit! I can’t think of what to say next.” Free writing forces a writer to get past the agonizing first draft in manageable chunks. Although you can free write as long as your heart desires, you can also set a timer so that you know when the agony will end. For this free write, I’m setting timers for 4 min, 3 min, and 2 min. When the timer goes off, it allows me to pull back from what I’m writing for a brief moment before jumping back into it. There are psychological reasons for why I think free writing is so effective. It forces the writer into flow state, an immersive experience that lets the writer feel as one with the pen and paper. It also lowers self-awareness by not letting me look back on what I’ve written and by defining the parameters of my writing. I’m mentally exonerated of my “shitty first draft”, a term that Anne Lamott uses in her book Bird by Bird to talk about how all great writing has to start with one very shitty first draft. By recognizing that there is –
This nine-minute free write on free writing pushed me past the paralysis I often get when needing to put words down on the page for a first draft. Now, I’m going to rework my free write, putting into practice that the notion that good writing is really just good rewriting. Below, I’ve underlined phrases or ideas that came from my free write so you can see how I constructed the final piece from that loose beginning.
A revised free write
“When you just need to write the damn thing already, try free writing. Free writing is for articulation and exploration, whether you want to put words to an idea you already have or generate ideas through putting words down on the page. To free write, all you need is a pen, a piece of paper and a willingness to keep writing until the timer goes off no matter what — even if all you can think to write is ‘Shit! I can’t think of what to write next.’ Free writing is for writers who procrasti-clean to avoid getting started on writing a new piece, whose clean baseboards betray their first draft phobia. It’s for writers with a bad case of blank page syndrome, the panic that comes from staring down a vacant screen and a blinking cursor.
Writing a first draft can be agonizing when the task seems indefinite.
Writing a first draft can be agonizing when the task seems indefinite. Although you could technically free write for an indeterminant amount of time, setting a timer constrains writing into manageable chunks, a well-known technique for tackling challenging tasks. For this free write, I set a timer first for four minutes, then three minutes, and finally two minutes. Each time the timer goes off, I pull back from what I’m writing for 10 seconds, become conscious of the direction I’m going and pivot if needed.
Our very human ability to self-reflect helps us plan, organize, and improve our writing, but it also has serious downsides. “The self is at once our greatest ally and our fiercest enemy,” writes social psychologist Mark Leary in his book “The Curse of the Self.” The self’s ongoing chatter lies at the heart of its curse because incessant ruminating, rehashing, regretting and worrying impedes our ability to perform.
But we cannot simply quiet the self when its chattiness has lost its charm; deliberate effort also requires us to chat with ourselves. To quiet the self, a back door approach is needed, and free writing is one such method.
The requirement to keep writing no matter what words follow forces the writer into flow state, an immersive experience in which words flow smoothly and effortlessly. People often describe flow state as feeling like losing oneself in an activity. For the musician who is so focused on reading sheet music or the rock climber who is so fixated on finding the next foothold, there is no mental space for thinking about anything else. So it turns out that flow state truly is about losing one’s self. As such, flow state improves performance on tasks that are executed best without conscious thought.
Reducing conscious thought may not lead to high quality writing but it will lead to a high quantity of writing — the goal of a first draft. Free writing is like putting furniture into an empty house that you can then rearrange, reupholster and repaint.
Free writing is like putting furniture into an empty house that you can then rearrange, reupholster and repaint.
The parameters of free writing all but guarantee a “shitty first draft” — to use the words of Anne Lamott in “Bird by Bird,” her best-selling guide to the messy journey through writing (and life). Although Lamott argues that all good writing is born from shitty writing, when writers find themselves constructing truly terrible sentences, this usually has them questioning their ability, their identity and maybe even their financial security. So if unhappiness happens when expectations fail to meet reality, we need to change our expectations to align with the reality that the shitty first draft is not only inescapable — it has tremendous value.
Events do not cause emotions, but interpretations of events do. A shitty first draft can either be seen as an inevitable and essential part of the writing process or as sign that you need to change careers. The first interpretation will allow you to give yourself grace as you spew bad writing; the second will lead you to catastrophize about what bad writing means about you and your future.
But free writing mentally exonerates you from any semblance of responsibility to write a good first draft. The stream-of-consciousness style of writing ensures that the exercise is a more of an opportunity to do a verbal data dump than craft elegant prose.
Generating a first draft is a vulnerable moment in the writing process. It’s when doubts are high and confidence is low. But free writing can free your mind and help you make it through.
Korrina Duffy is an assistant professor and scientific writer in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado – Anschutz Medical Campus. She lives in Denver, Colorado.