Freewriting and the Internal Editor

by Mark Levy

Fast Company Expert Blogger, Tom Clifford, posted the second of a two-part interview he conducted with me. In this last part, I talk about freewriting: how and why it works, and when to use it.

If you’ve tried freewriting, you’ve likely experienced the technique’s considerable value.

I’ve seen people use it to create a strategic direction for their company, brainstorm ideas for a personal branding campaign, plan a product launch, think through employee engagement problems, rehearse ways of handling a negotiation, write books and blog posts, and more.

What’s behind freewriting’s effectiveness? It temporarily rids us of our internal editor. As I describe it in the interview:

“Inside each of us is an internal editor that does an important job. It edits what we think, say, and write — as we think, say, and write it — so we sound smart, confident, and consistent.

“ . . . There is a time, though, when our internal editor gets in our way.

“ . . . Since the editor wants us to always look good to others, it’s going to tell us we’re being stupid or impractical if we try thinking thoughts that are radically different for us. It’s going to order us to push aside the new and go with the familiar. It’s going to anchor us to what’s not working.”

Freewriting, then, gives us mechanical leverage over our editor because, as we use the technique, our editor can’t keep up with the deluge of words that hit the page. While  the editor is backing off, we can reason with vigor and abandon.

During any given freewriting session, much of what we write will, out of necessity, be boring or confused.

A portion of what we produce, though, will likely stand among our best work.

Through my book, “Accidental Genius,” as well as through my consulting and workshops, I’ve taught freewriting to thousands. I’ve seen people take to the technique instantly, and I’ve seen others try it and struggle. When they struggle, it’s almost always for one of three reasons:

1. They wrote without timing their session. In doing freewriting, use a timer set for five, ten, twenty, or thirty minutes. When the timer starts, you start. When it finishes, you finish. By using a timer, you can forget about logistics, and spend your attention and energy on flat-out writing.

2. They stopped writing throughout the session. While freewriting, it’s important to keep writing no matter what’s happening in your mind. That means, if you’re stumped, write about being stumped. If you’re feeling sluggish, write about your lethargy. If your thoughts are choppy, put them down choppily. Stopping for more than a second or two gives your internal editor a chance to reengage and disrupt the process.

3. They wrote at a leisurely pace. If you freewrite too slowly, you’re writing, not freewriting. Again, you want to write fast enough so that your editor slackens its grip. That means, if your editor is running at five miles an hour, write at six miles an hour. Your fingers needn’t fly over the keyboard. They just need to move at a clip slightly quicker than your norm.

If you’ve tried freewriting before, I’d love to hear about your experiences:

  • How has the process helped or hindered you?
  • Do you have any interesting freewriting stories to share?
  • What’s your best freewriting tip?

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Sandra Lee Schubert

When I was facilitating a writing program we used freewriting extensively. I have found writers love rules. Especially grammar rules. I have seen grown men weep over a misplaced semi-colon.
Freewriting meant you could not pay attention to rules of structure, editing or grammar. I should have just driven nails through the fingertips of each writer for the pain they suffered not following rules for five minutes.
Nonetheless, when they could let go for five, or ten minutes the writing produced was wonderful. Even when the text made no sense there was a nugget of value in the writing. Maybe a theme showed up the writer had never thought of before. Or there was a line that was so deep a whole other story emerged from it.

The other aspect of freewriting is loosening up the dirt so some thing could grow. The freewriting itself may have been gibberish on paper but it unclouded a foggy brain, or brought a writer back to their paper. Can a timer set at five minutes have any value? If you are paying attention to the cake in the oven or unleashing the creative soul it certainly has value.

Reply

Mark Levy

Great comments, Sandra, thank you. I especially appreciate the last one.

Sometimes when you look at what you’ve written during an individual freewriting session you don’t see much. But, then, away from the page, you’re much clearer, and the next day’s session yields results. Individual sessions, then, build upon one another.

Reply

Sarah Mitchell

Hi Mark,

I’ve used freewriting for years. I first learned about it in a writing group where we agreed we would start every day with a 20 minutes freewriting exercise. It was a great habit to get into and helped generate the creative juice needed to write fiction.

Not long ago I was struggling with web copy for a new client. Everything I presented was turned back. In a fit of frustration, I did a freewriting exercise to clear my mind. When the website designer saw the result, he loved it and suggested the client would too. I refined the main points but he was right; the client approved the new “first draft”. I never anticipated freewriting could be part of the process for commercial writing until then. Now it’s one of my secret weapons to developing an distinct voice for each client.

Reply

Mark Levy

Thanks for sharing that story, Sarah. It reminds me of a quote of Thoreau’s: “Say what you have to say, not what you ought.”

Too often we approach the page with a bushel of oughts in mind. We think our writing ought to sound smart, and it ought to sound literary, and it ought to be entertaining, and it ought to start with a pain point, and it ought to be brief, and on and on. All those oughts tangle us up.

As your story showed, when you put oughts aside and you just start writing with abandon, the brain unclenches and becomes playful. Wonderful things can then happen on the page.

Thanks again for commenting.

Reply

Mark Levy

Thanks for the comment, Heather.

I applaud your instructor for yelling at the class if your hands paused. When I’m teaching a group, I too yell (with tongue in cheek) if someone hesitates. My standard line at such times is this: “Think onto the paper, not in your head.”

As you know, when you hesitate, you drop back to your status quo thinking. During freewriting, you want to be going at the speed of your raw thoughts, rather than at the speed of your grammatically-correct self.

Again, thanks.

Reply

Heather

I started freewriting when I was in college in a Fiction Writing course. The instructor made us freewrite for 15 minutes at the beginning of every session and yelled at us when our hand paused for even a moment. It has done WONDERS for me in my writing for pleasure as well as my professional writing and brainstorming.

It can take a little while to get used to, but once you get the hang of it (especially the not pausing to edit part), it can produce some great ideas. I typically use it for brainstorming when I don’t have others to bounce ideas off of–I think it’s best done while alone and somewhere quiet without distractions!

Reply

{ 1 trackback }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: