W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

No: 44 Free-Writing

D-L Nelson will be giving a short story workshop the last weekend in October in Argeles-sur-mer, France. For more information write her at donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr


Many writing teachers urge new (and not-so-new writers) to free-write daily. Free-writing comes under other names called practice writing, daily writing, etc., but the concept behind it is the same. Regular writing exercises are for a writer what playing scales are for a musician or hitting balls are for a tennis player or golfer. They warm you up. They help you fine tune your style.

What is free-writing? It is taking a piece of paper or your computer keyboard and you start to write without stopping. You never worry about spelling or editing. You don’t think, “I can’t say that, it will hurt my Aunt Minnie.” You say it. You let it come out.

Even if you freeze you are supposed to go on by repeating your last few words such as:
I went to the store to buy a case of Coke, a case of Coke, a case of Coke
because I loved Coke since i was a kid, a kid, a kid, and my mother only
would let me have three and my brother had the other three and and and
and I often stoled his.

Yes there are mistakes, yes there are repetitions, but the idea is to keep going.

So many times as writers we are stopped by what we feel is safe and correct. We need to get away from that concept in our free-writing. What dedicated free-writers find is that often the free-writing produces the energy that leads to other good writing. Take the free-write about the case of Coke. That led to a short story about sibling rivalry acted out with a brother and sister stealing each other’s treasures in the third person from the point of view of adults.

What if it doesn’t produce anything? So what? Does each piano scale produce a sonata? No, but with enough scale practice the sonata will be played better.


There are two ways to measure free-writes. One is by a timer set for ten minutes. The other is to fill up three pages. Less than that really isn’t enough. More is fine.


Put your pencil/pen/fingers to paper/keyboard and start and don’t stop until the time/pages are filled. Don’t answer the phone, go to the toilet or take a sip of tea.

What if you don’t know how to start?

1. Find a trigger such as emotional phrases: I love…, I hate…, I want…, it pisses me off…, I remember…, I don’t remember…

2. Use a color. I wanted to wear red as child but mother said it clashed with my hair. Work your way through the rainbow. Just think how many writing exercises you can do around different words for purple: lavender, lilac, violet, mauve, purple…

3. Find a sentence in a book, newspaper or magazine and use that as a trigger.

4. Use a piece of conversation that you overheard.

Where should I free write?

Anywhere you want: on a bus, train, airplane. In your kitchen, office. At a café. Sure it is ideal to be locked away with quiet or soft music in the background, but it is more important to do it.

What to do with your free-writing

1. Ignore what you wrote. No one ever needs to make every word written count. We don’t see the canvases that the artists didn’t like. A professor at Simmons College once said that every writer has 250,000 bad words in them. Free-writing gets rid of some.

2. Go get a cup of tea or coffee and come back and reread what you wrote circling something you like.

3. Transfer what you like into a journal for later use or not.

4. Develop what you started.

Most of my blogs at http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.com started as a free- writes. I only clean them up slightly before I post them. It warms me up for the day. On the other hand there are free-writes that I will never post because Aunt Minnie would kill me. Either way I am limber enough afterwards to go on to do the writing I need to do for the rest of the day.

Set yourself the goal of free-writing for a month even if you have to lock yourself in a bathroom to do it. By then it will become a habit that you miss. Trust me. I am a free-writer junkie.


Nathalie Goldberg is one of the strongest proponents of free writing and I recommend WILD MIND and WRITING DOWN THE BONES to every writer. This month’s samples are taken from WILD MIND.

1. “I met a doctor the other night who told me he had always wanted to be a writer…Then I thought to myself, ‘You know, I’ve never met a writer who wanted to be anything else.’”

Notes: Although this isn’t about free-writing, Goldberg touches on the secret that drives writers – they want to write.

“When I walk into a house I see rooms. The only thing I know to do to rooms is to paint the walls white. My friend Rob, who is an interior designer, walks into a house and moves walls, raises the roof and puts in a window where it was solid…I went with Rob to a flea marker. He bought two six-foot high abstract paintings and we brought them home. He hung them on the north wall of his living room. We stood back to look. ‘Just, a minute,’ he said and disappeared. He came back with a can of whitewash and painted a thin coat across the entire canvas of both paintings. I yelled, ‘You can’t do that!’

‘Why not?’ he called back over his shoulder. ‘They’re not Rembrandts.’ I must admit that the paintings looked better.”

Note: What a wonderful example of not being afraid to change things to make them better. And in free-writing, we are at a starting point either to change what we’ve done or leave it alone. It doesn’t matter.

2. “For fifteen years now, at the beginning of every writing workshop, I have repeated the rules for writing practice. So, I will repeat them again here. And I want to say why I repeat them: Because they are the bottom line, the beginning of all writing, the foundation of learning to trust your own mind. Trusting your own mind is essential for writing.”

Note: Her rules include keep your hand writing, below be specific, lose control and don’t think.


Decide if you want to free-write to a time or to number of pages and how, computer or paper. Decide where. Promise yourself that will do it every day for a month even if you have to vary the place or the tools. Do it.


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