Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

How I write 1: getting the utmost from a free-write

For those who don’t already know, “free-writing” is a method of freeing the creativity of the subconscious mind.   It is a simple but very important technique.  It is part of the discipline which separates writers from those who merely want to be writers.  It is part of the writer’s response to a situation in which another person would say “I can’t think of what to write”. 

Many of my fellow students at the Open University fail, in my opinion, to get the best out of free-writing.  The reason for this is that they neglect the “free” element of it and end up with nothing more than “writing”: something written by the conscious rather than the subconscious.  People in this category tend to remain unconvinced of the power of free-writing, which is not surprising, since many of them have never actually done it. 

I recommend the following steps.

  1. Choose a prompt.  This can be anything.  It does not necessarily need to have anything to do with any writing project you are considering.  It is merely a starting point.  It could be anything from ‘I feel sick’ to ‘Paris’: anything from ‘The robber fired the gun’ to ‘Bed-time’.  Turn to a blank double-page in your notebook (preferably an A4 notebook) and write the prompt at the top of the first page.
  2. Start writing.  Don’t bother with grammar or punctuation.  The English language has now ceased to exist and there are just words.  Throw the words onto the page.  Start writing immediately.  Don’t think.  Thinking is a conscious action and so thinking is banned.  You are not writing this: your subconscious mind is.  Let it speak.  All you have to do is hold the pen, so shut up and write.
  3. Faster.
  4. Faster.
  5. I said FASTER.  Come on!  Come on!  Come on! 

Write until the table shakes.  Write until the nib of the pen tears the paper.  If you are in an upstairs room, write until the people downstairs come up to find out what the hell is going on. 

After about four or five minutes, you should be exhausted mentally and, preferably, physically as well.  I recommend repeating this no more frequently than once per hour.  I usually find that two free-writes in one day will give me enough material for a piece of short fiction or a poem. 

Finally, of course, examine and reflect on what you have produced.  It should surprise you, because you – the person you are accustomed to thinking of as you – didn’t write it: some-one else wrote it.  That some-one else is your subconscious. 

And make sure you remember to lock your subconscious mind away again, before it starts roaming the landscape and constituting a creative menace to decent folk everywhere.


5 responses to “How I write 1: getting the utmost from a free-write

  1. Michelle Stewart Was Donaghey December 9, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Well that woke me up good and proper.
    Very good advice, thank you.

  2. Mintylearns December 11, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    Excellent advice, William. Thank you.

  3. charmarch December 5, 2015 at 11:12 am

    Splendid, William – perfectly put!

  4. GeaVox December 30, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    one problem with all this “free writing” is that it encourages sloppy writing. And one problem with sloppy writing is that it is the child of sloppy thinking and even more sloppy research.

    We could do with some exercises on writing structured, well-crafted English prose…
    There is already a glut of poorly-written, puerile, self-centred dross out there peeps…
    We need better writing to bring English literature back from the brink of terminal irrelevance.

    • wthirskgaskill December 30, 2017 at 1:05 pm

      No. That is not the concept of free-writing. It was fashionable once to put pieces written using this technique forward as publishable, especially during the first period of surrealism, in the 1920s. In those days, it was known as automatic writing. This was re-visited in various ways during the 1960s, e.g. by William Burroughs (though the published work of even William Burroughs is often more crafted than we might think).

      The point of is this article is not about how to produce finished pieces. It is solely about how to produce material from which to begin thinking about a finished piece. I am sorry if I didn’t make that clear enough.

      Nobody believes more strongly in structured and well-crafted prose than I do. But that comes later in the creative process than the stage I am talking about.

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