Freewriting: Writing for Crappy Writers

by J. Money on December 19, 2012

old antique type writer

(Our first Guest Post of this blog! And it’s an AWESOME one at that – I’m totally trying this for my next post, it takes me forever to knock ‘em out… Thanks, Trevor!)

The Onion Newspaper is the yardstick that all other satire is measured against. And I’m going to share with you secret of their genius.

Quantity.

Those fantastic titles they use? Each writer has a quota to produce 16 a day. All together, that’s 3000 titles per weekly issue, the vast majority never used. Here are a few examples of the 1% of 1% of Onion headlines that made it to print:

  • Drugs Win Drug War
  • World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg
  • KFC No Longer Permitted To Use Word ‘Eat’ In Advertisements
  • Study: Dolphins Not So Intelligent On Land

Today I’m teaching you about a writing process called “freewriting” that hacks your brain into producing quantity. This kind of the quantity is fertile ground for brilliant ideas you never thought yourself capable of.

The best part? Freewriting is much easier than the type of writing you’ve done until now.

What Freewriting Does For You

The following sentiments are not mine, they’re revelations from writers who started freewriting partway through their career.

Freewriting…

  • Clears logjams in the mind
  • Accesses knowledge you’d forgotten
  • Enables you to write with an honesty attractive to readers
  • Causes a chain reaction of ideas
  • Creates ideas no one but you could have had

How To Freewrite

So how to access this power? It’s so easy even I can teach it to you. I’ll give you the TL;DR version first.

  1. Hammer your keyboard, writing whatever comes to mind for ten minutes. Don’t correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, anything.
  2. If you can’t think of anything more to write, keep writing anyway. You must write for the full ten minutes. Rip it out of yourself.
  3. When your timer rings, save and close the document.
  4. 24 hours later, come back with a fresh set of eyes for your editing.

Still with me? Now I’ll explain each step in detail, and why it’s important.

The Hammering

In freewriting, it’s important to write as close to the speed of thought as possible. Allow your creative brain to completely take over, while making your inner editor subordinate and passive. This is accomplished by typing as fast as possible and without correcting. Don’t use that backspace key!

If you run out of things to type, too bad. You’ve got to keep typing, even if it’s garbage. Your brain hates wasting its energy in this way, so it can come up with your most brilliant ideas when you think you’ve nothing more to say. Here’s a direct quote from a recent freewriting exercise.

“BLOG BLOG BLOG BLOG DAMMIT WHY WON’T YOU BLOOG!”

Timing yourself during this process is critical. If writing a novel is a marathon, freewriting is a sprint. I find ten minutes works best. Use a kitchen timer, oven timer, or download a free timer from the internet. I use the free Orzeszek Timer with the Star Wars Cantina music as my alarm.

If you were in a race, would you stop to make a phone call to your aunt? Of course not! You’re not allowed any distractions during a freewrite. No looking up facts, no watching youtube videos and no bathroom breaks.

Try this: do a typing test and find your WPM. Multiply this number by 10. This is your freewriting session goal, assuming a session lasts 10 minutes. My typing speed is 71 WPM, so my freewriting goal is 710. If I’m not producing that many words in a session, I’m shortchanging myself.

If you’ve freewritten correctly, your creation should be the literary equivalent of raw sewage. Well done! Now, you’re going to save this shambling wreck to your hard drive, and not look at it for the rest of the day.

Want to see the 970 words of blight this article was birthed from? Of course you don’t. Here it is anyway.

Now for the easy part…

The Easy Part

Like a crockpot curry dish, a piece of writing is better if given a chance to stew for hours in its own juices. Your brain will accomplish this by itself with a hot meal, a good night’s sleep, and sex if you can get it.

Now I’m a profoundly lazy man, so waiting around is my favorite part of freewriting. Let your subconscious do the real heavy lifting here!

New insights to the topic you just wrote about will pounce unbidden into your thoughts. If they’re any good, go ahead and add them to your freewriting text. And the crap ones? What the hell! Add those too. We want quantity over quality here, remember?

Turning Crap into Gold

Ah, we’re on day 2 now. It must be time to get back to work. Steele your nerves and open up yesterday’s abomination. It’s time to sculpt this ball of clay.

Writing was yesterday, and today we’re editing. It’s very important to keep those 2 tasks isolated in your mind. In school, you’re taught to edit AS you write, so at first you will resist this separation.

If your freewriting was productive, you should have a few “wow” facts within your text. I like to find the “wow” facts and lead the article with them.

For example, 9 minutes and 50 seconds into my freewriting for the article you’re reading now, I remembered that The Onion produces 600 headlines a day, most which never get used. I finished slamming the thought out just as Star Wars Cantina started to play. That weird fact ended up being the coat rack I hung this entire article on.

Next, read through your freewrite to try to tease out some headers, so you can lead readers from one subject to another in a civilized way. If you’re feeling feisty, you can do a mini freewrite for each header to bulk your word quantity even more.

I don’t want to go into too much depth with editing, the point of this article is actually to turn your editing brain OFF. A good book for an aspiring editor is “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk.

Freewriting to a Topic

I use freewriting most for essays like this one, or articles about subjects I know very little about. When freewriting to a specific topic, like for a blog post, try “fueling up” on the topic for ten to fifteen minutes beforehand. Copypaste notes if it helps you remember facts, but you’re not allowed to consult them during a freewrite.

You can let your research percolate overnight if you want, or tear into your freewriting immediately. Start with whatever first comes to mind about your subject, and your mind will lead you from there on paths new and unknown.

This is Just a Taste

There are a thousand ways to use freewriting, and many books far superior to this article on the subject. I’m not the god of freewriting, I’m just a prophet.

My favorite freewriting book is “Accidental Genius” by Mark Levy, because it approaches freewriting from a business angle. He shows examples of using freewriting for press releases, product development, marketing messages, and of course blog posts.

Get Started!

My favorite feature of freewriting is how stupid easy it is. You’ve got ten minutes don’t you? Pick a topic and do a freewrite right now! It’ll shock you – your mind is bigger than you think. And in case you missed it, here’s a look at the raw material for this article you just read: A freewrite about freewriting.

Freewriting is a great writing process, but it’s not the only method out there. If you’ve got a writing technique that works for you, share it in the comments.

—————
Trevor van Hemert makes things, mostly bad jokes and websites. His experiments litter the internet like corpses after a battle. By far the least terrible of these sites is about 5 gallon buckets. His newest tepid creation is about mason jars. The web has many social media options, but the only one he understands is Pinterest.

(Photo credit: xlibber)

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Lance @ Monry Life and More December 19, 2012 at 10:42 am

This sounds very interesting and I might have to try it out sometime. It definitely isn’t how I write now and maybe it can provide some inspiration!

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Fedja December 19, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Hah, you just put into words something I did at college many years ago without knowing.

Ok, my approach was an ad hoc version, and an accidental one at that. I figured out that I write the craziest useless short essays when I’m inebriated beyond coherence. I found one of those documents a week later, and looking through it, it struck me how brilliant it was. Not all of it, the 10% that could be considered a story, a train of thought.

So I did my first “freewriting” when I beat my editing capacity to death with alcohol. Then, a few days later, I extracted the useful 10%, the core of the story, if you will, and reconstructed the essay around it with proper grammar and style.

The essay was a huge success, but reproducing the process back then was a bit harmful to my health. I wish I had read your article back then.

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Trevor @ 5 gallon ideas December 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Great story! Thanks for sharing. Amazing that you stumbled across this exact technique with the help of alcohol in quantity. The same technique applies to chatting up members of the opposite sex.

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J. Money December 20, 2012 at 12:46 am

Haha that is awesome… I tend to drink some too while writing – it def. helps! That and crazy amts of coffee :)

Thanks again for the great post, Trevor – I really am gonna give this a shot!

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eemusings December 21, 2012 at 4:56 pm

This is pretty freaking awesome! Also, the Onion rocks my socks. I wish I was a quarter as rad as their writers.

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J. Money December 21, 2012 at 10:46 pm

Right?

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Dorine Nafziger January 2, 2013 at 2:35 pm

Love the crockpot curry analogy! Thanks for the inspiration today!

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The Happy Homeowner January 2, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Hahaha…love the blog blog blog excerpt! I’ve done freewriting exercises in the past and they’ve yielded some of my best ideas. Great tips here!

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J. Money January 4, 2013 at 11:37 am

Glad y’all like – Trevor’s pretty pimp with this stuff :)

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Crystal @ Prairie Ecothrifter January 6, 2013 at 2:41 pm

I freewrite all of the time. Pretty much anytime I’m uninspired, I just do what I call “vomiting on a page”. Just write a crazy train of thought and crap for a few minutes and all of the sudden, I’ll get on a specific subject. That’s my post and I just delete the rest unless there was a solid start in there for another post, lol.

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