About Freewriting: Notes of a Pencil Sharpener, Part II

Freewriting as a creative exercise can be found recommended in many writing books.  It’s a part of creative writing courses; writing or brainstorming software often incorporate it; variations of it are everywhere in the writing world.

Freewriting generally means setting a time of 10, 15 minutes or whatever length you choose, and then writing non-stop without deliberation until time is done even when it seems that nothing wants to be written. Especially then.

I can’t claim to be an expert on freewriting, although that certainly won’t stop me from writing about it. But I have done it enough to know its value.

Although you might begin the 10 minutes with a blank page and an empty head, by the end of it you may well have a sentence or two or even whole paragraphs that stand out. You will almost certainly have ideas you didn’t have before you started. The blank page is daunting though, and sometimes people fight a certain amount of inertia in actually doing it. A lot of that inertia comes from trying freewriting as a one-off technique that’s supposed to be good, without understanding the reasons for it.

Even though the concept seems almost ubiquitous today, freewriting seems to have started as a technique invented by the writing teacher Peter Elbow. He provides the theoretical context that makes this exercise both understandable and inspiring.

I bought Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow in the late 1970s. (The price on this 1973 paperback is $1.95.) This book was followed up by the more widely known Writing With Power from 1981 which has gone through several editions.

Both books are really about the psychology of writing. They’re about contradicting the common viewpoint that in order to form a good style we should know our meaning, know exactly what we want to say, before putting words on the page. Elbow’s viewpoint is that meaning is not what you start out with but where you end up. Writing is a way to end up thinking something you didn’t start with. “Writing is, in fact, a transaction with words whereby you free yourself from what you presently think, feel and perceive” (Writing Without Teachers).

Elbow’s model for the writing process is composed of growing and cooking. He describes the growing process as having four stages: start writing and keep writing; disorientation and chaos, emerging centre of gravity; mopping up or editing.

Freewriting is what powers the growing. Set aside 10 minutes. Start writing. Don’t stop for anything. Don’t rush but don’t stop. Never look back, do not cross out, do not muse about word choice, just go. If you get stuck, it’s fine to write things like, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write,” or repeat the last word over and over until something catches. The only requirement is that you do not stop until time is up.

In a sense I’m saying, ‘Yes, freewriting invites you to write garbage, but it’s good for you.’ But this isn’t the whole story. Freewriting isn’t just therapeutic garbage. It’s also a way to produce bits of writing that are genuinely better than usual: less random, more coherent, more highly organized. This may happen soon in your freewriting exercises, or only after you have done them for quite a number of weeks; it may happen frequently or only occasionally; these good bits may be long or short. Everyone’s experience is different. But it happens to everyone. (Writing Without Teachers)

He recommends keeping a freewriting diary, just taking 10 minutes a day.

This simple exercise can be elaborated into an entire regimen of eventually fruitful writing which Elbow describes in Writing With Power. But I wanted to mention what he means by “cooking.” He sees cooking as the interaction of contrasting or conflicting material. For example this interaction can be between people in those cases where the discussion goes somewhere. It can be between contrasting and conflicting ideas in the work itself. It can, importantly, be interaction between metaphors.

“Make as many metaphors as you can. And analogies, comparisons, examples. Encourage them. Let them roll off your pencil freely. Too much. They produce interaction and cooking just as in the interactions between people and ideas. When you make a metaphor, you call something by a wrong name.” (Writing Without Teachers) In the beginning the more mixed metaphors the better!

He has a lot of intriguing discussion about what constitutes cooking, and noncooking, but I’ll leave it there.

In Writing With Power, Elbow takes the freewriting concept and sets out programs of writing which incorporate both control and creativity.  I prefer the simplicity of the earlier book.

But in the later book he describes the following as “The Open-Ended Writing Process,” which I’ve found helpful.

1. Write non-stop for 15 or 20 minutes.

2. Pause and find the center or focus of what you wrote and put it in one sentence.

3. Use that sentence as the start for another burst of non-stop writing. Let the writing go wherever it wants. At the end it may have nothing to do with the starting sentence.

4. Pause and focus and write down another starting sentence. Write non-stop again.

5. Keep up this cycle until “you get to the piece of writing that is in you that wants to be written.”

6. Find a way to write it. Maybe it’s done, maybe it needs a new draft. Perhaps you need (heaven forfend) an outline, even.

7. Elbow says this process is most useful if you sense you have something to write, but don’t know quite what it is, and you’re willing to allow for time and chaos while you develop it.

Now although I’m promoting Elbow’s ideas here, and I think both these books repay study, I don’t do freewriting nearly as much as I should, although it does come in useful at times. In a way I’ve used this review to revisit Elbow’s ideas and to get me going on it again in a more pure way.

Of course, I’ve looked on the Internet for some easy computerized way of freewriting.  Basically you just need a text editor and a timer that you can set.  There are programs for sale of course, which incorporate the idea, but one which doesn’t cost anything is WriteSparks Lite.  It is a come-on for full paid software and you have to give up your e-mail address to get it (they say this is for an occasional mailing which you have the right to unsubscribe from immediately).  I haven’t had any problems with it, and even the Lite version incorporates the freewriting idea well, even providing some prompts, should you need them.

You can also use Timeleft, a free desktop timer utility, while using your favorite word processor.

I have to end with a little creative piece, as in Part I, from Kenneth Maue’s book, Water in the Lake: Real Events for the Imagination.


Write to 40 people and ask them to send you one word of their choice.  You may want to make this request of friends, or strangers, or a combination.  Tell them you are writing a piece of literature composed of 40 contributed words, and that you’d like them to contribute.  As some people may not respond right away, or at all, continue seeking contributions until you’ve received 40.

When you have all the words collected, write a piece of literature that contains these 40 plus as few other words as you need to make a coherent piece of writing.

Send a copy of this piece of literature to all the contributors.  Include a list of names, and possibly addresses, so they all may know who the others are.

Note: For Part I see https://fencer.wordpress.com/2006/06/09/books-on-writing-and-creativity-notes-of-a-pencil-sharpener-part-i/ .

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14 Comments on “About Freewriting: Notes of a Pencil Sharpener, Part II”

  1. secretmojo Says:

    Fantastic post, as always. I have put Writing With Power on hold at my library.

    I’ll have to test that unconscious refinement technique as an alternative to line-editing. Seems everything I write dies a little in the edit, similar to how washing a cat reveals how insubstantial she is underneath the fluff.

    The 40-word story project is intriguing as well, particularly because I can sense a little mischief ensconced within…

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi secretmojo,

    I have a tendency to over-edit from the get-go as well. I really like hunting for the right word, although it may screw up the flow of what I’m trying to say overall. It is an ingrained habit, and I want to do more freewriting to see if I can break away from it at least a little bit.

    Elbow says, and I’ve experienced this only a little: “If you do freewriting regularly, much or most of it will be far inferior to what you can produce through care and rewriting. But the good bits will be much better than anything you can produce by any other method.”

    Just takes more time and patience… which is tough for me sometimes.

  3. Naomi Says:

    Lovely blog, sir. I see I’m not the only one who uses books about writing to postpone actual writing. :-)

    I agree that free writing is an excellent way to encourage creativity and improve the quality of one’s writing overall, but I think that it works best when it is truly free. Maybe the timer is helpful for people who find the task overwhelming or need concrete evidence that they do, in fact, have time to write. In my experience, I do my best work after I’ve been writing for at least twenty minutes, and having a timer in the background or hearing an alert after a specified amount of time breaks my concentration. Better to write continuously for as long as possible, and sort out the results later, in my opinion.

    Thank you for your comments. In answer to your question: I was a little hasty when I input my desired URL, so I ended up transposing two letters. Since I value internal consistency in creative works, I decided to preserve the initial error for my blog title. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Naomi,

    Thanks for your comments…

    I think I may be one of those concrete evidence people, or I just need the idea that I can be done soon… I see the freewriting discipline as a way to clear the rust out of the pipes, which in my case seem to clog up real quick, and a means to slip a fast one past one’s overactive editing function. But if you can go and keep going with the writing without that kind of thing, well, I admire that.

    Thank you for your explanation on your title… I can rest easy now!


  5. qazse Says:

    fencer, thanks again as always. I am going to try thre technique right now here zI go, Ii suck at typing why id that? I type like a monkey at dsome secret government lab in Nevada. My son casey is here asking for C batteries. They are my least favorite type of battery what does that mean. What if AAA was my favorite? would that be good or bad, under a blue sky they are all unnecessary …

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    I think it’s a little tougher to do on a keyboard, depending on your typing skills. Some people might find it flows more better with pen and paper. But I think you’ve got the hang of it there!


  7. I really like the idea of the 40-word writing project — that’s a fascinating concept.

    I go back and forth between computer-based and hand-written freewriting. I definitely type much faster than I write, so in some ways I can really tap into my unconscious that way by just typing as fast as I can without giving it too much thought, but then I find I want to go back and correct typos as I go, which is also something that gets in the way of the freewriting. When handwriting, I go slower, which means I don’t make as many mistakes, either, even if what I end up with doesn’t make a lick of sense.

    When you get stuck, what do you do? Do you just write “I’m stuck” over and over again until you free up your mind? I have my own techniques for breaking those freewriting blocks, but am always curious to hear about other people’s ideas.

    The Inadvertent Gardener

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi Genie,

    I like that project too. I was kind of thinking setting up a separate blog to try to run funny little projects like that. What would be even cooler for that one would be to get all the contributors to write their own version, once the words are settled on… Don’t know if I have time to do it. That book by Kenneth Maue is great… lots of similar process experiments to play with.

    Fortunately, the one useful thing I learned in high school was typing, so I can put out words without thinking where my fingers are. I can breeze along alright with freewriting that way. I just have to check the impulse to correct and to pause for the “right” word.

    When I get stuck, I go “What to write, what to write.” Or “Don’t know, don’t know.” Or “Oy! Oy! Oy!” (Just kidding with that last one.)

  9. Ha ha! I love “Oy! Oy! Oy!” That would be hilarious. I might try that.

    I learned typing pretty early, as well — my parents sent me to typing lessons, which mortified me, but which has turned out to be one of the best things they could have done. I have the same skill — can type without having an eye toward the keyboard, and pretty much even know when I’ve made a mistake. It’s handy, isn’t it?


  10. fencer Says:

    I was reading a book by Ursula LeGuin on writing today. In there she illustrates a point about the sound and rhythm of language with some writing by Gertrude Stein. This bit of lovely doggerel from Gertie had the short phrase, “Drink pups. Drink pups.”
    I think I will use that the next time…

  11. firefly8868 Says:

    I enjoyed this post of yours very much. I do freewriting at the beginning of each project I take on for a client but have not persisted with it to such a degree as is prescribed by Elbow and passed on here by you. I will put this advice to use, and appreciate a) Secret Mojo for linking to you so I came here this morning, and b) your excellent post.

    As a side note, I used to tutor children who were bogged down in school for one reason or another. Often creative writing was quite a bear for them. I used to tell them to forget about penmanship, spelling, grammar, punctuation and everything other than just writing and writing and writing until all of their ideas were out and on the paper … I introduced them to the difference between writing and editing. Poor little children, they are pressured into horrific self-editing duress and told to write something creative while worrying about red teacher marks. Yikes! It was not easy to get them to turn off the self-editing, but a wonderful experience to read the results of their liberation.

    Thanks again for such a great post. The 40 word project sounds intriguing.


  12. fencer Says:

    Hi firefly,

    One of the knitting crew!

    Thanks for your comments. That’s great that you managed to get the kids out of self-editing mode… You’d have to be talented as a teacher to do that I think.

    I’m trying to do freewriting as a practice everyday… See if some bright lights can appear in my writing.


  13. Eliza D Says:

    Fencer, I seem to have got stuck on your blogsite. Lovely post and thank you for the tips. I find that with freewriting, well, the stuff that gets to go on the page are stuff percolating in my head which has nothing at all creative to do about them. But the suggestion to let rip with metaphors and analogies may help. Thanks again.

  14. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    Thanks for stopping by… Hope there was something helpful in all that.


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