Writing Exercises: Freewriting

writing exercises in freewriting

FREE writing exercises (literally).

One of the most valuable writing exercises I learned in college was freewriting.

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

At first, freewriting is a bit of a struggle, but if you stick with it, you will 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.

This is not like other writing exercises because freewriting is also a tool that you can use to generate written material for a variety of projects. It will also help you clear your head or tap into your deeper thoughts.

Writing Exercises and Train of Thought

The first few times I tried freewriting, 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 freewriting and something clicked. Freewriting 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 freewriting, from January, 1999. This was just one of the many writing exercises I did in college under the creative writing program:

I set the microwave timer for 30 minutes so that I wouldn’t write for too long – although I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt if I did. Usually I do freewrites in a journal. I have a tendency to reflect on the current events of my personal life during a freewrite.

Train-of-thought writing exercises are pretty coherent. For the most part, it makes sense, as you can see in the example above. The technique involves writing on a particular subject, or working with a concrete topic. This can be useful in many ways, but it won’t tap into your deeper creativity the way freewriting 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 in my head. But when I’m looking for poetic images or vivid characters, freewriting does a much better job.

Writing Exercises and Stream of Consciousness

By February, 1999, I had a much better grasp on freewriting:

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 neat trick. So what can you do with it?

Applications for Freewriting

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

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

Freewrites can also be used to bring creative, colorful language into prose. Strong images and rich language generates 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 freewriting? 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 writing exercises to share, feel free to post them in the comments.

Are you looking for more writing exercises? Pick up a copy of 101 Creative Writing Exercises, available in paperback and ebook.

101 creative writing exercises

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.


11 Responses to “Writing Exercises: Freewriting”

  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

    • Freewriting exercises are also great for developing source material. What I mean is that you can pull interesting lines and phrases from freewrites and use those to make poems. You can also do topical freewrites where you use stream-of-consciousness but are focused 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

    • That’s fantastic Harriet! Thanks so much for sharing it here. I like to go through my old freewrites with a highlighter. I highlight the words and phrases that stand out and then use them in my poetry. It’s a lot of fun :)

  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 freewrites except for you. Then again, every writer has to find his or her own comfort zone. Either way, keep on writing!