Free Writing: A Super Simple How To Guide

What is free writing and how can it help you become a better writer?

Free writing is one of the most effective writing techniques I’ve come across. You don't need to learn any special skills either. Anyone can use free writing to improve their craft. 

What is Free Writing?

Free writing is the rapid and non-judgemental capturing of ideas as they occur.

Writers use this technique to express themselves, to better understand the world around them, and to think ideas through on the blank page.

It's useful for fiction and non-fiction writers alike who want to refine their writing skills.

In his excellent book, Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best, Ideas, Insight and Content Mark Levy best explains what free writing is:

Free writing is a fast method of thinking onto paper that enables you to reach a level of thinking that’s often difficult to attain during the course of a normal business day.

Why Free Write?

Even if you’re not a business person, you can still use free writing to generate ideas, to practice writing, and to improve your craft.

This writing technique can help you if you’re struggling with writer’s block, if you want push through a boundary in your writing, or if you want to explore creative ideas at the back of your mind.

If you haven’t written that much, free writing can help you get into the habit of writing, and it will provide you with a fresh perspective on your ideas and what you want to say.

For the more experienced, the practice of free writing is fun to try if you’re bored with your current writing project or you want to push yourself harder.

I use free writing for:

  • Brainstorming articles
  • Writing journal entries
  • Explore stream of consciousness ideas 
  • Taking a break from formal writing

How to Free Write

Free writing is easy. All you have to do is pick a topic and write about it continuously for a predetermined period. You can use it for blogging, writing a first draft or for other creative writing. 

1. Write Without Self-editing

Free writing only works if you don’t question or criticize every sentence, idea and story that you put down on the blank page.

Instead, let the words flow freely from your fingers onto the page without pausing or questioning what you are saying.

Then, when you’ve finished your free writing for the day, spend time polishing, buffing and making your prose shine.

2. Time your Free Writing Sessions

To get the most from free writing, apply this technique during concentrated, sustained and timed bursts of creativity.

This practice works best if you’re working against a limit. To do this, I set an alarm on my computer for 25–30 minutes, and I disconnect from the internet.

Then, I start writing and keep going until the alarm sounds.

3. Write What's On Your Mind

Free writing enables you to follow a train of thought in new and exciting directions. Some of these directions may be dead-ends, but they’re still worth exploring.

When you’re practicing, record what you’re thinking or if you feel distracted – it doesn’t matter if it’s unrelated to the topic you’re writing about.

These could include:

  • The sound of a dog barking
  • A desire to get something to eat or drink
  • The creaking pipes in your house
  • A conversation you had with a colleague recently
  • A line of thought you want to explore
  • An argument you had with someone
  • A conversation you want to have with a friend

If it helps, consider using a free writing prompt.

4. Write for Short and Long Periods

If you’re struggling to achieve a breakthrough, free write for longer periods without taking a break. 

Yes, this is mentally and physically demanding but you don’t have to do it often, and it will help you break through those difficult barriers every writer faces at some point.

The first time I tried free writing I found it hard to get going, but when I mixed up session durations it became much easier.

5. Keep Your Hand Moving

This piece of free writing advice comes from Natalie Goldberg’s practical book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.

An advocate of free writing, or writing practice, she recommends “keeping your hand moving.”

Self-criticism has no place in a free writing session. When you free write, don’t worry about:

  • Bad grammar or spelling
  • Editing yourself
  • Structure or form
  • Expressing your ideas logically
  • Rules you normally follow
  • Fact-checking or research
  • Self-censorship

Don’t take your fingers from the keys until you’re finished writing.

If you prefer a pen, this means keeping the pen pressed between your fingers. And if you like to dictate your writing, keep the dictaphone recording until you’re done.

6. Maintain a List of Topics

I use Notes on my Mac to arrange my writing.

Inside Evernote, I keep a notebook of topics that I want to free write about. Examples include ideas for short stories, sentence fragments, blog posts and ideas that I want to explore.

Then when I want to free write, I pick an item from my notebook and go with it. Keeping these types of lists means I spend less time looking for a topic and more time free writing.

7. Combine Free Writing with Other Writing

Some days, it makes more sense to plan your writing in advance or aim towards a target word count.

Mixing free writing with other types of writing sessions will help you get more from your sessions and avoid becoming bored with the process.

8. Keep Your Scraps

Free writing produces many leftover ideas and copy that doesn’t immediately belong anywhere. Whatever you do, don’t throw this writing in the bin or delete it. They still represent part of the writing process.

Instead, keep your cast-offs in your journal or a file on your computer.

Later on, you may want to return to these leftovers and extract something useful from them. And even if this time never comes, they serve as markers for your progress as a writer.

9. Expand On Ideas From Your Niche

I read a lot of non-fiction books. This means I regularly come across ideas that surprise me, inspire me or confound me.

Sometimes, I take these ideas and expand on them during free writing sessions. Free writing about ideas helps me internalise them and figure out how I can apply them.

If you want to do the same, underline key passages in the books you are reading, write notes in the margins, and review these notes when you’re finished with the book (the Kindle is ideal for this).

Then, pick one or two ideas and use these for your next free writing sessions.

While free writing, record everything that comes to mind during this period.

Free Writing's Role In Your Writing Process

Don’t worry if you write nothing but garbage. Your job here isn’t to produce a page of immaculate prose that your editor or your readers will love (you don’t have to show anyone what you’ve written).

Instead, this technique should encourage your mind to go in new and exciting directions.

Writing a a first draft is all about making messy mistakes.

You’ll know you’re succeeding with this technique when you find yourself writing about things that have nothing to do with your original topic.

When you’re finished, you can always go back and extract what’s useful and turn it into something more readable.

Free Writing FAQ

What is an example of free writing?

Natalie Goldberg's book Writing Down the Bones contains many excellent examples of free writing. Alternatively, a journal entry represents a good personal free writing example.

What is the purpose of free writing?

The purpose of free writing is to explore your subconscious and practice writing. It's also a good technique for combatting writer's block.

What is the best free writing software?

You don't need any special software to try free writing. However, a journaling app like Day One is good as it's private. Google Docs is another nice choice as you can work from anywhere.

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