By Troy Headrick
Writing! A topic of great interest at Pointless Overthinking. In fact, Bogdan has written a number of blogs about writing and the psychology of putting things down on paper. For example, there’s this one which begins by asking if the act of writing helps writers write better. (I would answer such a question by saying that practice certainly makes perfect, as the old saying goes.)
Many of those who read this blog regularly are, themselves, bloggers, writers, deep thinkers, students of psychology and human behavior, and/or prolific readers. So there are certainly lots of reasons to believe that writing is a subject that many are interested in.
I spent a lot of years working as a university instructor of writing and I currently manage a writing center at Palo Alto College, a community college in San Antonio, Texas. That means I studied rhetoric and writing theory at a very advanced level when I was in graduate school. Today, I’d like to share with you a writing tool that many would find both theoretically interesting and practically useful.
When I was I was working on my MA and PhD, I was asked to read many of the writings of Peter Elbow, a great scholars who is often thought of as the father of freewriting, the tool I wish to discuss with you today.
Though Elbow has written a lot about freewriting over the many years he’s been a teacher, a writer, and a thinker, perhaps his most succinct discussion of the subject can be found in “Freewriting Exercises,” chapter one of Writing without Teachers, his seminal 1973 work that was published by Oxford University Press. I’ll be referring to that text to help me flesh out my discussion of freewriting.
I have used freewriting for many years to help student writers tackle many problems associated with composing. Freewriting is basically an ideas-generation exercise that works wonders, so if you have trouble with writer’s block, or coming up with fresh ideas, discovering exactly what you want to say in a piece, or working on developing your “authentic voice”—another concept that Elbow has written a lot about—then freewriting is for you.
Freewriting works basically like this. You sit down with a black piece of paper or computer screen in front of you (though paper sort of works best) and begin writing rapidly about anything that comes to mind. You don’t worry about structure or focus or grammar or spelling or anything else. Speed is important for a psychological reason. We all have this nagging voice in our heads that is very self-critical. This voice tells us things like, “Don’t say that!” or “That’s a stupid idea!” or “Are you sure you feel that way because, if you do, people are going to think you’re weird!” This voice gets in the way of our creativity by making us paranoid right at the precise moment—at the very beginning of the writing process—when we should be freest in our thinking. Thus, freewriting—because of its speed—allows us to “outrun” that nagging internal critic. Because freewriting frees us up to explore in a non-judgmental way, it helps us make discoveries that wouldn’t otherwise be made. By avoiding self-censorship in the earliest stages of any writing project, our mind is unfettered and thus apt to think and say things that will be surprising and insightful. It’s like a tool that helps generate epiphanies. Elbow says that the very best “thing about freewriting is that it is nonediting.”
Editing is the discerning mind beginning to make choices as you move deeper into the process and begin thinking about all sorts of things, like focus, structure, organization, coherence, etc. Freewriting is a way of unleashing the imagination at the outset, way before you begin to even consider polishing your writing so it more closely resembles a finished composition.
If you’d like to see a sample of freewriting or learn in more detail about this wonderful tool, I strongly encourage you to have a look at the opening bit of Elbow’s Writing without Teachers.
Now that I’ve said a little about freewriting, what comes to mind as you look at this piece and at Elbow’s theories? Do you feel that freewriting would be of help? If so, why? If not, why not?
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy: Blog & Art.