What’s the scariest part about writing?
Ask a thousand writers, and, well, you’ll get a lot of different answers.
But it’s a pretty good bet that one bogeyman will rise to the top: the blank page.
If you’ve ever hunkered down to write a term paper, or a blog post, or *gulp* a novel, then you know how daunting that empty white slate can be. On a computer, the cursor mocks you with its flashing message: nothing, nothing, nothing.
In a journal, the empty lines give you an even more definite gauge of how much you haven’t written.
Of course, the blank page is just the most obvious symptom of the general malaise known as writer’s block.
Writer’s block is characterized by a fountain of ideas that excite the victim all day long and keep him from sleeping at night, only to get lodged somewhere in his neck or shoulders when he sits down at the keyboard and attempts to transmit those stories through his fingertips.
As someone who wants or needs to crank out a slew of words on a deadline — or even at leisure — there is nothing more frustrating than a solid case of writer’s block.
And there is no shortage of home remedies to try and rid yourself of that blank page — take a walk, do some yoga, meditate, stop trying to write, play with your puppy.
But there is one foolproof method that works every single time if you get if it an honest try.
What is this magic elixir that will loosen your verbal backlog?
It’s that old favorite of writing teachers across the land: free writing.
What Is Free Writing, and What Can It Do for You?
Wikipedia describes free writing as
a prewriting technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling, grammar, or topic. It produces raw, often unusable material, but helps writers overcome blocks of apathy and self-criticism. It is used mainly by prose writers and writing teachers.
But classifying free writing as a “prewriting” technique is limiting and short changes what it can do for you, especially when you’re stuck in a rut.
The basic idea behind free writing is that you sequester yourself away from the world for a bit — even a few minutes will do — with your writing utensils in hand, set a timer, and then just start writing.
Don’t edit, don’t look up synonyms, don’t check your email, and, most of all, don’t stop moving your pen or clacking on the keyboard.
No matter what.
Keep going until the buzzer sounds, and then stop. At that point, you can take a break, walk around for a few minutes, and then hit it again.
Or, you can be done.
So how long should you write?
It doesn’t have to be long at all, and you might be surprised by how many words you spew forth in even a short period. When I’m whirring along at full speed, it’s pretty common for me to write for 25-minute sprints and knock out 800-1000 words at a clip.
If you can string three or four of those together over a couple of hours, you will be up around 2000 words (at the very least) for your efforts. And if you do that for week or a month?
You’ll be approaching a novella’s worth of words, no sweat.
You may be thinking that telling you to write in order to break up your writer’s block is complete bunk, but it’s not.
The first time you try free writing, it’s going to feel strange and strained. You’ll want to stop and think, and the blank page will try to maintain his hold on you.
Don’t let that happen.
How do you prevent it?
Just start typing or moving your pencil. You might clatter out a few random words per minute at first, but before long, you’ll have more coherent thoughts, and then those will make it onto your screen.
It’s a simple process, really. Not much to it at all.
But just in case you’re still not convinced, here’s a quick step-by-step guide to get you going.
7 Steps to Crushing Your Writer’s Block with Free Writing
Retreat to Your Writing Hole
If you don’t have a writing hole, then you really need to think about creating one. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, but it needs to be somewhere you can concentrate. An office with a closed door is ideal, but a corner of Starbucks with headphones on will work, too.
Turn Off Your Cell Phone
Nothing is more distracting in modern life than the constant barrage of texts, social medial updates, and email that comes to us 24-hours a day through the droids surgically attached to our hands. You’re only going to be free writing for a few minutes at a time, so you can afford to kill the cell for a while, and you’ll be all the better for it.
Collect Your Tools
You don’t need much gear to be successful with free writing.
If you’re writing by hand, grab a pen or pencil and some paper.
On a computer, open your favorite word processor. It’s hard to go wrong with Scrivener, but Word or Google will work fine. Also, be sure to kill everything else so you’re not tempted by distractions — if you have a real problem with this, you can use an application like Cold Turkey to help.
The last thing you need is a timer. You can use a physical food timer or an online option like the Marinara Timer.
Pick Your Interval and Get Ready
Choose how long you want to write, and set your timer. Get your pen on the paper or your fingers on home row, and then … go!
Now, just write, and don’t stop. As I mentioned above, it doesn’t matter a whit what you write — in the beginning, anyway — but just THAT you write.
Pound out a grocery list, or the names of professional football teams, or the all the words you can think of that start with the letter ‘g,’ but the key is that you have to WRITE.
The whole … dang … time.
Until the buzzer sounds.
This may seem the same as “Write,” but it’s different.
While you’re writing, don’t stop to think of your next word or sentence.
Don’t stop to look up a word.
Don’t stop to fix a malformed letter or correct a misspelled word.
Once the that timer starts, your fingers should never stop moving, and the words should never stop bleeding onto the page until you hear the ding.
Finally … when the buzzer does sound, put down your pen or step away from the keyboard.
Don’t go back and read what you wrote and definitely don’t go back and edit it. There will be time enough for that later, on another day.
For now, enjoy your break and either get ready for another round, or just file away your “masterpiece” for now.
Is free writing really magical?
No, of course not.
But if you use it consistently, it can get you writing again, even if you’ve been slamming your author head against a wall for months.
The more regularly you use free writing, the easier it will get to sit down and write when you need or want to.
After a while, you might find that you don’t need free writing anymore at all, and that’s a great place to be.
Just remember, though, if that blank page starts to taunt you again, your old friend free writing is always at your beckon call.
Bonus: Extreme Free Writing!
If you’ve given free writing a shot and feel pretty stoked about what it can do for you, there is one tweak that can supercharge the technique even more … write without looking!
No matter how diligent you are about NOT stopping to correct or massage your words during your sprint, the temptation is always going to be there.
But there will be nothing at all to obsess over if you can’t even see what you’re writing.
So, if you want to give Extreme Free Writing a go, set up just as described above, but turn off your monitor right after you start your timer.
Beware, though, because this will be a harrowing experience. And when you turn that monitor back on, your manuscript will be a black-bloodied mess.
But going at it sans sight for a few minutes can do wonders for your typing speed and especially for the free-flow of thoughts to the page. If you stay extreme for awhile, you might be surprised at how bad your typos aren’t after several sessions.
Besides, what do you have to lose besides a few empty pages?
(NOTE: I first read about no-look writing on TheWritePractice.com, and it’s one tool I plan to keep in my arsenal.)