I have been running writing workshops in research-intensive UK universities for more than a decade now. When working with academics or doctoral students, one of the activities that tops their ‘most beneficial’ list is freewriting.
Freewriting is the process of writing as a stream of consciousness, without worrying about the normal conventions of proper sentences, grammar, punctuation and so on. There are many approaches to freewriting, but the one I’ll emphasise here is freewriting just before you get down to serious writing.
In my workshops, I often ask participants to write down what they ‘think and feel’ about writing their thesis, paper or other major writing task. I give them up to 10 minutes to handwrite, not stopping to analyse their writing.
Whatever the discipline of the participants, the majority find the activity unexpectedly revealing. Freewriting shortens the distance between thinking and writing. Without the normal constraints of worrying about the audience, the purpose, and the conventions of ‘good’ writing, the participants can freely express what they think and feel. This could be an outburst of emotion, a free-wheeling exploration of potential solutions to a problem, stepping back from a situation and seeing it from a new perspective, or something else. Thoughts tumble out in a haphazard way, without the need for them to be organised. Often, new connections are made.
Reading their freewriting afterwards, people often discover useful insights. At the very least, they tend to feel better having expressed something that had been concerning them.
When I follow up with the academics or students several weeks after a workshop, I sometimes ask them how and when they use freewriting. The most frequent response is ‘just before I have to write something serious’. Typically, they spend 10 minutes or so writing their stream of consciousness. Some use it to ‘clear the mind’ and get their ‘writing muscles’ working. Others use it to explore the piece of writing they’re about to do: ‘What do I think and feel about this paper?’ or ‘Why am I so resistant to writing this paper?’ They tell me it makes them think more holistically about the task and the process, stepping back from what they’re trying to do. A few say that by making new connections, they end up writing the paper more creatively, without the headings and structures they habitually use. It helps breathe life into their academic writing. They find their formal writing becomes more expressive, without losing its rigour.
Freewriting is a marvellous complement to academic writing, and the benefits far outweigh the little time it takes. Try it next time you have something important to write.