Targeted free writing is the cure for student writing blockage

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

Hobby writers tend to sit and think, then cling to every word they write, not realizing that they are just putting together the clay that will eventually form 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 it brainstorming; in writing articles, we call it free writing.

I used a free writing exercise at the start of the professional writing seminars I taught. Free writing for five minutes has helped my clients warm up their brains. Amazed that they could fill pages and pages of writing, they quickly realized the advantage of generating pre-written material to work with: they were no longer trying to write masterpieces from scratch.

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

The process

Free writing consists, very simply, of writing continuously in a context where the writer is free to write whatever comes to mind, and the only requirement is to never stop writing. Early in the writing process, when students are researching a topic, argument, position, or angle on their topic, nonstop writing triggers the subconscious and prompts the mind to deliver images, thoughts, and hidden memories.

Focused, or looping, free writing is a strategy in which the writer carefully reads free writing and highlights words or phrases, then writes again. Peter Elbow, one of the early proponents of this process, compared it to panning for gold – looking for the “good bits”. Starting with meaningful words or phrases for a second, or third, freewriting session will create a much richer draft.

How to direct your students

1. Ask them to 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 free writing session, set your timer for five minutes. Until the bell rings, students should write without stopping, without judgment, and without changing, editing, or correcting their writing.

The key is – and repeat it – do not stop. If they can’t find anything, they have to write “I can’t find anything to write” over and over until something comes to mind. The goal is to generate as much text as possible in a short amount of time. They should not stop to correct mistakes or complete sentences. If they suddenly go off on a tangent, they should follow it wherever it leads.

Free writing in a classroom can be facilitated by an opening prompt. For example, students working on a narrative essay draft might start with this lead-in sentence: “I’ll never forget the time I…”

2. Tell your students to proofread their free writing with a highlighter in hand and highlight any words, ideas, or phrases they might want to explore further. They are miners looking for gold. They look for surprising or interesting words and phrases, details that create an image or ideas that seem worthy of attention to them. Finally, ask them to look for something that stands out from the highlighted bits. What words, among the blessed mess, make them want to keep reading? It’s a hook.

3. Set the timer for an additional 5-10 minutes of free writing and have students begin with the hook chosen in Step 2. Encourage them to explore this idea and freely generate details, the more concrete they are, the better. They should try not to stop the whole time. Like what you see? Go further. Or try another good track and start over.

Your students should hold 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 precious clay needed to shape a pleasing sculpture.

Trust me on this – free writing cures writer’s block.

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

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