Just Don’t Stop! A Brief Explanation of Elbowian Freewriting
How many times have you asked your students to do a freewrite? Do you use the terms ‘quickwrite’ and ‘freewrite’ interchangeably? This brief post attempts to provide a working definition for freewriting. That way, you can make sure you’re using this powerful technique correctly (or at least how its creator imagined it).
English education scholar Peter Elbow published his first book, Writing without Teachers, in 1973. It is amazing. The book captures Elbow’s ideas on writing, composing, and responding. The ideas contained within his debut are as exciting now as they were forty years ago. The developmental approach to composition Elbow develops throughout the book stands in stark contrast to the way many of us teach writing to our students. I hope to address the book in a future post. For now, let’s dive in to what the master has to say on the topic.
What is freewriting?
Freewriting, also known as ‘automatic writing,’ is a technique that asks the writer to compose without stopping. That’s it. The goal is to sit down and pour out whatever’s on the top of your brain for ten to fifteen minutes. Without stopping. Freewriting is lowstakes; it’s not to be read or evaluated by anyone but the author.
Did I mention you shouldn’t stop? Go quickly. Never stop to look back or cross something out. Your pen/pencil/keystroke should be moving forever forward in time and on the page. Can’t think of how to spell a word? Fudge it. Don’t know what word to use in a sentence? Draw a squiggly line and come back to it when you’re finished. If you get stuck write, “I’m stuck” over and over until your ego gives up control and lets your subconscious take over. I can say from personal experience that this is perhaps the most essential (and difficult) component of freewriting for students to master, IMHO.
Schooling makes us obsessed with our mistakes. This means our internal editor is always on the hunt for anything that isn’t perfect. Our ego makes sure to leave out any idea or phrase it deems too silly or not good enough. Editing by itself isn’t the problem; editing is a necessary part of the writing process. The problem occurs when editing goes on at the same time as producing.
Producing while editing in the moment creates stilted prose.
The main thing about freewriting is that it is and must be inherently nonediting. Regular freewriting practice undoes the ingrained habit of editing while composing. It allows our first thoughts to come up and live on the page. The goal here is to TRY to get into a flow by getting out of the writing’s way. It won’t work all the time. It shouldn’t work all the time, really.
That’s it. I’ll devote more time to the entire book in an upcoming post. It’s that good.
Let’s end this brief post with a quote from the book.
“If you do freewriting regularly, much or most of it will be far inferior to what you can produce through care and rewriting. But the good bits will be much better than anything else you can produce by any other method.”
You can find a pdf of the freewriting section of Writing without Teachers here.
For more on our internal editor please refer back to my previous post on various ways authors approach the writing process.