Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. — Gene Fowler
Students, faculty, and the rest of us have experienced staring at a blank page or blank screen with a deadline looming. This “page fright” used to afflict me regularly, and no matter how much I stared, the words didn’t come. Blood drops didn’t form either. Maybe because I gave up too soon? What I did learn, and it can work for anyone, is to unlock my inner author by using free-writing.
Why do we have writer’s block?
I don’t have statistical proof, but my reflecting on my experiences and talking with others tells me writer’s block can stem from any or all of these reasons:
- Not in love with what we “have to” write
- Don’t feel confident of our writing for others
- Fear someone will evaluate our writing, or even us, and label it/us a failure
- Locked into fixed mindset when it comes to writing — “I’m just not talented at writing”
- Overloaded our cognitive machinery with the self-imposed rules of grammar, spelling, and first-pass perfection
I have experienced each of these conditions. I might even add that I was, at times, lazy and distracted by anything not involving writing.
What isn’t free-writing?
If you’ve ever written for a living, you might define free-writing as any piece that doesn’t earn you money, and something which you try to avoid. Writing’s hard enough that not getting paid is just bad business.
Some students may consider free-writing to be writing found on the Web that can be turned in for credit under their own byline. Um, no. If you’re thinking that, remember, it’s called plagiarism, which is just a fancy word for a combination of stealing and lying.
Neither the paid-writing-only nor the plagiarizing approach will develop your thinking skills, get your degree done, nor will it empower you to make amazing discoveries about your own thoughts.
Not sold, yet? What if you could quickly and simply double your writing speed?
How to free-write
It makes no difference to the success of this practice if your paragraphs are amorphous, the thought vague or extravagant, the ideas hazy. Forget that you have any critical faculty at all; realize that no one need ever see what you are writing unless you choose to show it. — Dorothea Brande in her book, Becoming a Writer (1934, p. 73).
A friend of mind, Dan Apple, calls free-writing writing-to-think and teaches it as a skill in his week-long learning-to-learn camps (see for example, Apple et al. 2016, pp. 25–28 ). He begins on the first day telling students, “Start writing. Write as fast as you can, and don’t worry about spelling, grammar, structure, or even correcting mistakes. Simply write at the speed of your thoughts. And time yourself.”
Double your writing speed
Dan finds that students start writing at a rate around three pages in fifteen minutes. By the end of the week, students will have written over 100 pages, and be writing at a rate that is at least double their original writing speed. Some students reach a rate of ten pages per fifteen minutes. This writing improvement surprises the students and builds their confidence. This accomplishment does more than that — they produce a picture of their thoughts that they can then edit into something someone else would want to read.
What to do next
What you do next with your free-writing depends on the purpose of it. If you’re writing to communicate to someone else, then go back through the writing and underline and label the key thoughts. Then build an outline that makes sense an plug the thoughts into it. More polished writing can proceed from there.
If, on the other hand, you are writing to discover, you can simply summarize the key discoveries or you may choose to expand on them. It’s up to you. No one needs to see your free writing, and that makes it a safe place to experiment and let your thoughts flow. You only need to guard against your own critic who will try to constrain your writing.
Like any skill, free-writing takes practice to build expertise. Set aside 15 minutes a day to become both more fluent and more informed on your thoughts. Practice self-honesty in your writing so your true voice emerges. The more you free write, the more comfortable it becomes. The quality of thought will noticeably improve, in addition to the volume.
Apple, D. K., Ellis, W., & Hintze, D. (2016). 25 Years of Process Education. International Journal of Process Education, 8(1), 1–154.
Brande, D. (1934). Becoming a Writer. J. P. Tarcher.