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The Case for Freewriting

Freewriting is the form of writing that we hope that you’ll use when responding to our prompts.

Peter Elbow is one of the most prolific writing teachers and researchers. He’s a true writing guru. In my doctoral program, his name came up again and again.

I included this video because it introduces us to two of the central principles of our workshop:

1) “Make a mess” with your writing through freewriting.

2) “Private writing” is a critical component of a writing practice.

What does Elbow mean by “make a mess”?

I’m sure many of you have heard of Anne Lamott’s term, the “shitty first draft.” What Elbow is talking about is writing that is even messier — even shittier, if you will — than a first draft. Even using the term “first draft” implies that there is a goal, a structure, a theme to the writing.

The kind of writing we’ll be doing is what comes before that “shitty first draft.” And this kind of writing can fundamentally change your writing practice and the overall quality of your writing.

It’s not a first draft; it’s a “zero draft.” You do this writing before a first draft. It’s freewriting. It’s writing without censoring yourself. You’re writing to remember, to find ideas, to learn, to figure out what you want to say, to figure out your topic.

The goal in freewriting is not the product. It’s going through the process.

“Freewriting is the easiest way to get words on paper and the best all-around practice in writing that I know. To do a freewriting exercise, simply force yourself to write without stopping for ten minutes. Sometimes you will produce good results, but that’s not the goal. Sometimes you will produce garbage, but that’s not the goal either. You may stay on one topic, you may flip repeatedly from one to another; it doesn’t matter. Sometimes you will produce a good record of your stream of consciousness, but often you can’t keep up. Speed is not the goal, though, sometimes the process revs you up. If you can’t think of anything to write, write about how that feels or repeat over and over ‘I have nothing to write’ or ‘Nonsense’ or ‘No.’.. The only point is to keep writing.” — Peter Elbow

This writing is not for an audience. It’s private. (In the video, Elbow says through freewriting, you should “learn to talk to yourself on paper.”) It’s our first wonderings, our first capturing of ideas. Lower your standards, and then lower them again.

I want you to completely let go of the idea (or even the desirability) of perfection in the first attempt at exploring something in words. Let go of all of your expectations that your writing at this stage should be “good.”

“Freewriting is like aerobics for your creative faculty. Because you cannot stop, and because you know no one will ever read what you write, you are free to let your creative faculty run around and play. And play it certainly will. It will give you ideas, it will give you words, it will give you questions. It will make leaps and take you places you never expected to go. (It will, quite often, also give you junk.)” – Barbara Baig

Write and keep writing.

For each prompt, spend at least 15 minutes writing. Try to refrain from editing or judging what you’ve written. LET GO.

Have you done this type of writing before? Do you do it now?