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Freewriting: A Strategy for “Freeing Up” Ideas About What to Write

Have you ever stared at a blank piece of paper (or empty computer screen), knowing you had to write something about something, but having no idea where to start? 

Or (once you start composing) has your writing ever felt like a halting, laborious, almost painful task?

So now imagine what writing feels like for those adult ed students who have had limited experience doing it or believe they are no good at it. What barriers are they facing when we ask them to engage in a writing assignment? Do you wonder that they avoid or resist having to write at all?

How do your students respond when you ask them to write something for class?
Are they OK with it? Do they resist it? Are they able to accomplish what you ask them to do?

In many cases the problem is NOT that we – or our students — have “nothing to say” about a topic. Rather, we and they may need a strategy for making the act of writing a bit less difficult or threatening, and for getting our ideas out of our heads and into written words. One such strategy that we can teach to our students is Freewriting. Here is a discussion of this strategy by Writing content expert Peggy McGuire:

In Freewriting, you think about a prompt and then, for a specified length of time, you write everything you can think of in response to that prompt. No worries about spelling or punctuation or any other mechanics; no worries about order or appropriateness or “correctness”; no worry about whether anyone will think it is good or bad. You just write.

The point of this strategy is to quickly transfer all the ideas in your head to paper (or computer screen) so you can think about how to use them later. It is designed to “loosen up” all those ideas and get them out without the constraints of “normal” writing rules or conventions. So, once you start writing, you don’t stop until time is up. Even if you can’t think of something that specifically addresses the prompt, you just write whatever comes to mind – or even just draw pictures or scribble nonsense until more ideas come out. See Example

This is especially good for novice writers because it also gives them practice in literally “putting the pen on the paper”, and may make that act less difficult as it is done over and over.

Freewriting can be done at different levels of structure, depending on what kind of prompt we use. You might start novice writers with more structure, and then as they get more comfortable with the strategy, you can try less structure in your prompts.

At a high level of structure, Freewriting might be prompted by a direct question.
Example: Write an answer to this question: “What is the best thing about your neighborhood?”

At a moderate level of structure, Freewriting might ask writers to react to a statement.
Example: Respond to this statement: “My neighborhood is a wonderful place to live and raise a family.”

Freewriting with minimal structure might be prompted by just a word or phrase.
Example: Write about this: “my neighborhood”

For Freewriting to have its maximum impact in helping students get more comfortable with writing and generate more ideas to write about, it should be done regularly and often. Some teachers ask students to do it during every class; others will schedule time for it at least once a week. Sometimes the prompt will be about a topic of general or current interest, and sometimes the prompt can be related to a particular topic for a reading or writing activity that you are planning for the class.

And perhaps most important, the writing that comes out must never be  graded or evaluated. We need to be very clear about that characteristic of Freewriting with students (while we are explaining to them why they are doing it) and to be willing to stick to it ourselves!

Please share with us your thoughts on methods for supporting students to ‘get their ideas on paper‘ and/or how you can make the act of writing less difficult or threatening for adult learners.
Below, Peggy offers a couple of questions to “help you get your ideas flowing”  😉

What strategies do you currently use to help your students “find ideas” for writing?

Do you currently use Freewriting as a part of your instruction? If so, when, how often, and why do you use it? Are there situations in which you think it is a particularly effective teaching/learning strategy? Please feel free to share details such as: how you describe its purpose to your students, what kinds of prompts you use and instructions you give, how you see students’ writing changing as a result of using it, etc.

How do you think using the strategy of Freewriting regularly in class might affect your students’ comfort level with writing? Their ability to generate ideas that they can use in their writing?

Learn more about teaching writing strategies in the EFF online mini-course, Standards-Based Writing for Adult Learners: Getting Started, or via other EFF professional development materials/services!

 Research on the use of Freewriting:

Elbow, P. (1981, 1998). Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1981, 1998.