Every morning for the past three years, I’ve had the same daily ritual. First thing after breakfast, when the world is quiet — or just as I’ve sat down on the train for my commute — I take out a little notebook or open my laptop, and I write.
The topic doesn’t matter. Neither does the artistry. All that matters is putting words on the page. The prose might be dire, but this practice of writing on demand has, without a doubt, made the process of developing stories, novels, and scenes easier in the long run.
If you’ve never done any sort of writing before, this type of writing (that is: freewriting) provides an easy and risk-free way to take your first dip into the waters. Freewriting can seem daunting at first, but the point of the exercise — whether you do it daily, weekly, or whenever you have a few minutes to spare — is to take the fear out of the blank page.
Freewriting as Practice
My particular brand of freewriting routine was first and most widely popularised by Julia Cameron as “morning pages”. In her book The Artist’s Way, Cameron promotes three pages written by hand first thing in the morning as a way of emptying your mind of distractions and obsessions, readying both the conscious and subconscious for creative action. As a sort of journaling exercise, it provides the foundation for the rest of Cameron’s creative practice.
For me, the more important bit is the combination of discipline and freedom that morning pages provide: the time and imperative to simply sit down, and now, write, without worrying about quality. Your only goal is to fill the page. If you’re just starting to explore writing as a creative outlet, freewriting is a key skill to practice in order to take the challenge of the blank page head on.
For those who are more experienced at writing, you may find that freewriting helps as a tool to overcome writer’s block. By removing the pressure to produce anything good or even readable, you separate the act of writing itself from the performance of creating something publishable, and allow yourself to create without judgement.
Which all goes to say, writing, like any other skill, is something that needs to be practiced. Freewriting is the easiest and gentlest of writing exercises, a way to build up your creativity and writing stamina without critical pressure. And the best part about it is that it can be done anywhere, any time, so long as you have something to write with.
So let’s try it right now.
The Basic Freewriting Exercise
- A timer
- Anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes of uninterrupted time (though 5 minutes will also do in a pinch)
- A writing medium: notebook and pen or pencil; the wordprocessor on your computer or laptop; a typewriter with fresh tape and a blank sheet of paper; a cafe napkin and stub of eyeliner
- Courage and curiosity
- Optional: A starting prompt such as “I remember…”, “Right now, I feel/think/see/hear…”, “I hope…”, “Yesterday…”, “When I was a child…”, “In the beginning…”, “Once upon a time…” etc. For more ideas, you might try a prompt generator like this one or a questionnaire such as this.
The Process: Open your notebook or laptop, or prepare your typewriter. Set your timer for ten minutes to start with. Take a deep breath, and begin by writing whatever comes into your head at that moment — use a prompt if you’re having trouble knowing where to start. Once you’ve started writing, do not stop until your timer goes off.
If you get stuck: simply write the word you’ve gotten stuck on over and over until your mind latches onto another word, image, or idea.
Remember: it doesn’t matter if your ideas are cohesive, if your grammar is correct, if your spelling is wrong, or even if you’re writing in sentences. The only goal is to build the connection between your two major writing instruments: your brain and your fingers.
Once the timer is up, finish whichever thought you’re on and put down the pen. If you never reread the words you’ve just written, that’s absolutely fine. On the other hand, you may find that one or two of the thoughts you’ve dashed down have real meaning and poignancy for you. There may be words or phrases that point to themes you hope to explore, or situations you might want to include in a story. Whether or not your freewriting has brought up anything inspirational, acknowledge the accomplishment of simply having written!
Building your Practice
For maximum impact, try to engage with this exercise daily if you can. I have a dedicated morning pages notebook that I use for my daily freewriting. In any case, this exercise is only the first step to developing a creative writing practice, though it’s a technique that you can come back to no matter where you are in the process. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of writing wherever and whenever you have ten minutes to spare, you can try using freewriting for more complex tasks such as plotting, character creation, idea generation, and even structural editing. No matter what, writing only becomes easier the more you do it. So get out those notebooks, and start freewriting.