Focused freewriting is the cure for students’ writer’s block

Freewriting for five minutes warms up the brain and begins to fill students’ blank screens with material that gets their writing going. Anne Carlisle talks through the process

Anne Carlisle's avatar
2 Feb 2022
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Freewriting is a useful exercise for university students to help cure writer's block

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Colorado State University Global

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Want to help your students cure their writer’s block? I recommend an exercise in “freewriting”, followed by “focused freewriting” (also called “looping”). This can be done online or in a face-to-face course. It involves timed, continuous writing, and several sessions, done with increasing focus, will lead to a rich first draft.

Amateur writers tend to sit and think and then hold on to every word they write down, not realising that they are just assembling the clay that will end up a sculpture. Encouraging them to go through a process is best done by starting with a free generation of ideas. In a meeting, we call this brainstorming; in writing papers, we call it freewriting.

I have used a freewriting exercise at the start of professional writing seminars that I taught. Freewriting for five minutes helped my clients warm up their brains. Amazed that they could fill up pages and pages of writing, they quickly realised the benefit of generating pre-written material to work with: they were no longer trying to write masterpieces out of thin air.

I’ve been told that the parts of our brain that freely generate ideas are not the same as the parts that edit well. If we try to do both at the same time, we may short-change one or both, and we often end up with writer’s block.

The process

Freewriting is, very simply, writing continuously in a context where the writer is free to write anything that comes to mind, and the only requirement is to never stop writing. At the beginning of the writing process, when students are searching for a topic, an argument, a position or an angle on their subject matter, non-stop writing triggers the subconscious and tricks the mind into delivering hidden images, thoughts and memories.

Focused freewriting, or looping, is a strategy where the writer closely reads the freewriting and highlights words or sentences, then freewrites again. Peter Elbow, an early advocate for this process, likened it to panning for gold – looking for the “good bits”. Starting with meaningful words or sentences for a second freewriting session, or a third, will create a much richer rough draft.

How to direct your students

1. Have them open a blank word-processing document or get a blank sheet of paper and a pen or pencil. You will also need a timer or stopwatch. For the first freewriting session, set your timer to five minutes. Until the bell rings, students should write without stopping, without judgement and without changing, editing or correcting their writing.

The key is – and reiterate this – do not stop. If they can’t think of anything, they should write “I can’t think of anything to write” over and over until something pops into their minds. The goal is to generate as much text as possible in a short period of time. They should not stop to fix errors or complete sentences. If they suddenly go off on a tangent, they should follow it wherever it leads.

Freewriting in a classroom can be facilitated with an opening prompt. For instance, college students working on a narrative essay draft might begin with this sentence starter: “I’ll never forget the time I…”

2. Tell your students to read over their freewriting with a highlighter in hand and highlight any words, ideas or phrases they might want to explore further. They are gold miners panning for gold. They are looking for words and phrases that are surprising or interesting, details that create a picture or ideas that strike them as worthy of closer attention. Finally, instruct them to look for something that jumps out from the highlighted bits. Which words, among the blessed mess, make them want to read on? That’s a hook.

3. Set the timer for another five to 10 minutes of freewriting and instruct students to start with the hook chosen in step two. Encourage them to dig more deeply into that idea and freely generate details, the more concrete the better. They should try not to stop for the entire time. Like what you see? Go deeper. Or try a different good bit and go again.

Your students should hang on to this material and use it to create an essay draft. It’s messy and fragmented – so they shouldn’t be tempted to turn it in as final work. They should see it as the valuable clay needed to fashion a pleasing sculpture.

Trust me on this – freewriting cures writer’s block.

Anne Carlisle is a published author and writing professor serving as adjunct English faculty, writing consultant and student affairs faculty liaison at Colorado State University Global.

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