Creative Writing Practices: Free Writing

writing exercises in freewriting

Free writing is not your train of thought.

One of the most valuable writing practices I learned in college was free writing.

When you sit down with a pen and paper and let words flow freely, amazing things can happen.

At first, free writing is a bit of a struggle, but if you stick with it, you’ll produce some gems. The trick is to get out of the way, and let your subconscious take over. Most writing exercises ask you to think. This one requires you do anything but that.

Free writing is not like other writing practices; it allows you to generate written material for a variety of projects. It can also help you clear your head or tap into your deeper thoughts.

Train of Thought

The first few times I tried free writing, I botched it. I would describe everything I’d done that day or jot down my thoughts on a particular subject in a random, messy way. Finally, in one of my creative writing classes, I got to hear some examples of free writing and something clicked. Free writing is not about train of thought; it’s about stream of consciousness, and there’s a big difference.

Here is an example of one of my early attempts at free writing:

I set the microwave timer for thirty minutes so that I wouldn’t write for too long, although I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt if I did. Usually I do free-writes in a journal. I have a tendency to reflect on the current events of my personal life during a free-write.

Yes, I was actually writing about how I was writing.

Train-of-thought writing is coherent. For the most part, the text makes sense, as you can see in the example above. The technique involves writing on a particular subject in a clear manner. This can be useful in many ways, but it won’t tap into your deeper creativity the way free writing will.

I use train-of-thought writing for clearing my mind or to prepare for writing a nonfiction piece as a brainstorming method to churn out all the information I have stored in my head. But when I’m looking for poetic images or vivid characters, free writing does a much better job.

Writing Exercises and Stream of Consciousness

After hearing another student’s free writing read aloud, I had a much better grasp on it. Here’s a sample of what I wrote once I better understood what free writing was all about:

in moonshine eyelet lace a rhapsody of liquors dancing off light reflected in the cut glass spoons stirring iced candy meltdown of hopes washed out memories of faded photographs and standing in line at a supermarket eyeing the magazines their eyes watching you like cats high up in trees crying for freedom but afraid to come down

The key to stream-of-consciousness writing is to relax your thinking mind and let the images of your subconscious take over. For some people, it takes a little practice, but once you get it down, it becomes a fun and creative practice. So what can you do with it?

Applications for Free Writing

Once you’ve built up a nice collection of free-writes, you have created a repository of images and lines, sentences, and paragraphs. You can now go through and harvest that material for your various writing projects. As you can imagine, the fruits of free writing lend themselves particularly well to poetry.

When I’m writing poetry, I often go through my free-writes with a highlighter, marking words and phrases that pop or strike me as especially meaningful or aesthetically pleasing. Then I pull these from the free-write and use them to compose a poem.

Free-writes can also be used to bring creative, colorful language into prose. Strong images and rich language generate work that is more literary in nature, and if done well, it’s a lot more fun to read. It will help you generate words that show rather than tell and make your story or essay come alive more easily in a reader’s mind.

Have you ever tried free writing? Do you tend toward train-of-thought or stream-of-consciousness writing? Are there any other writing exercises you recommend for creating more vivid prose or poetry?

If you have any experiences with free writing to share, please leave a comment.

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About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


21 Responses to “Creative Writing Practices: Free Writing”

  1. Rebecca Reid says:

    Wow, those are both great. As I mentioned in my other comment, I am pretty attached to a computer: it’s easier to go back and change things, it’s easier to type (I type from 70-90 words a minute so it’s a lot faster than writing, it’s easier to read the end result. But I love the results of your sessions above. I can see how I need to learn how to do this to let the creative flow.

    I kept a journal for about 10 years: it was combination train of thought and “diary” of my day. I think a train of thought journal would be nice now too. I just have to step away from the computer…

    • You can certainly do this exercise on a computer. For poetry and freewriting, I have always preferred writing longhand, but for everything else, it has to be the computer. Once I get through a first draft, I type it up and then use the computer for revisions. There is definitely something visceral about pen and paper.

  2. salina says:

    When I get stuck in my writing, sometimes I’ll just begin with I remember….. then write about something in my past, the way grandma’s kitchen smelled on a spring day, sitting by the fireplace reading a mystery while it’s storming outside. But if that doesn’t help, I have a list of things in my writing journal and if I have no idea what to write about, I’ll pick one of them (usually with my eyes closed and my finger stopping on a subject) and just try to write about that. I have things like go on a walk for 15 min. and pick a color and write for 15 min about that color.

  3. salina says:

    This is very helpful. When I write I tend to more of freewriting on my first draft. Then I’ll go through and revise it, several times over. I am always looking for smoothitivity in my work, but I have not heard of these excercises. Thank you so much.

  4. Walter says:

    Excellent! Something takes place in the archives of the mind during these exercises. Only a writer could understand. A pleasure to have a leading force such as yourself to present things like this for us. I like to keep a pocket tablet and pen or pocket tape recorder to capture a ‘Flow’ of thoughts and/or words. Oh, how many times have I made it to the table, sat down with pen or keypad, then found that the thoughts and words have gone cold or faded away completely. Back on point, I believe you were leaning towards using the exercise to jump start/stimulate the ‘Flow’. As well as create a library of thoughts and words for future projects. It seems as though my best ‘Stuff’ comes to me at the strangest times! Thanks, Walt

    • Free-writing exercises are also great for developing source material. What I mean is that you can pull interesting lines and phrases from free-writes and use those to make poems. You can also do topical free-writes where you use stream of consciousness but focus on some particular subject. This is my favorite type of writing exercise!

  5. Harriet says:

    woohee! I could do this ALL DAY! Once I started I could hardly stop. Can I share one with you?

    hide and seek my stream of water and brown brown muddy earth the heaven and the earth meet together when the sky sings to the moon and the silver clouds stream all streamy and dreamy like when you fall asleep in the back seat of the car on a long road trip and it is time to go back home where you recognise all of the landmarks which are like cars and bars and pretty scars which contrast with the holy and the lonely bread and butter and cakes for supper i like to eat salad and butter and the bread needs a band of honey and money is short but it tastes like straw

    Here is another one i just did a minute ago..

    smooth as silk and gray as day it seems to be all the time and again I will remember you are not the one i thought you were but blow your horn until the cows come home and the horses gallop and the snakes sneak and the cats roar and the beds sleep. I see you are the only one Iknow that is all balled up like the snow if you throw it at me you will break my heart and who know where all the pieces are because the pieces fell between the cracks and the cracks have moved a long way from home so you can’t trace your steps or break your back it doesn’t matter any more like it used to and I am tired of hearing about it but I can’t stop it and it plays like a broken record and reel and shows me all the time how I feel about you.

    So I am not sure what to do with these things–maybe it will come to me as I keep doing it. Some parts seem so coherent and others are like digits-fingers, parts, you know? But this is not “hashing out”, it is pure pleasure for me!

    Harriet Allen

  6. cmdweb says:

    I’ve tried freewriting several times but never really had much luck with it. I think I’m too inhibited (for reasons I can’t quite fathom yet) to actually allow myself to just gush words onto a page. I have a preference for structure and logic which seems to counteract what freewriting is about.
    I’ll maybe try again, as I am well aware of the benefits of the technique.

    • I think it’s worth trying again. Getting past one’s inhibitions with writing can really free one’s creativity and open the door to new discoveries. Remember, nobody has to see your free-writes except you. Then again, every writer has to find his or her own comfort zone. Either way, keep writing!

  7. Krithika Rangarajan says:

    First off, I would love to applaud Harriet – the commenter above – for her fabulous effort! #HUGS

    Second, thank you so much, Melissa!

    “The key to stream-of-consciousness writing is to relax your thinking mind and let the images of your subconscious take over.” – BEAUTIFULLY penned!

    My creativity is exhausted. I am just not able to think. Maybe I should try to freewrite – I am just finding it so hard and sit and write for myself :-(

    But thanks again for your invaluable tips


    • I have found free writing to be a good exercise when I’m tired or can’t focus on other types of writing that require more thought and focus. Free writing is kind of a brain dump, so it can be a good exercise to do when you’re feeling stressed out, too.

  8. Linda says:

    Thank you for this! This is really cool. I have just started out with content writing and scribble here and there too. Your tips are great. Will surely use them when i write again.

  9. Eugene Coghill says:

    Wow! I must say that I am amazed that anyone can free write like Harriet Allen and also you Miss Donovan. I must admit I am a bit too logical and structured. It is the analytical Virgo that I am. But I do journal sometimes as a warm up to my writing. However even that is deep and thought provoking, much like a sermon, which I am fairly good at producing!!


  10. opsimath says:

    Hello again, Melissa, and thank you for this piece on free-writing. I realise you don’t actually want to hear from me and that my opinions don’t mesh with yours, but I have to say that, if there is a ‘wrong’ way of free-writing, can it truthfully be called such.

    Whenever I have tried it, or any other writing exercise, for that matter, my mind immediately blanks and nothing is there to put onto a page; an interesting idea was floated in the BBC Horizon programme, suggesting that creativity is in some way ‘hard-wired’ a physiological condition that would go far in explaining such creative geniuses as Mozart, or in literature, people such as Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood.

    Born, not made, would seem to have a good part of the story of their success and the effortless way in which they seem able to create worlds from nothing.

    I would be interested to read you thoughts on this, and once again thank you for your blog. I can’t find my way into the sweet-shop myself, but I can at least look at the goodies in the window.

    • Opsimath, I do want to hear from you, although I have to disagree with your claim that success is born and not made. Of course some people have talent and it’s easier for them to succeed. Others just get lucky and the world latches on to their work. If we are talking about success (not quality), then I believe it can happen to anyone. James Patterson himself said that he was a good marketer and not a very good writer. He’s pretty successful.

      It is undeniable that some very questionable works have reached millions of readers and launched authors into success. As I’ve said before, success and talent do not go hand in hand. Many talented people sit around doing nothing and therefore never succeed. Many untalented people work hard, supplement their lack of talent with learned skill, and make a living at writing. You seem to have a streak of pessimism, but it sounds like you’re writing anyway, which is good. Your thoughts are always welcome here and I do want to hear from you regardless of whether I agree with the ideas you put forth. These issues are important to writers and worth discussing.