For decades now freewriting has been a pivotal technique in writing instruction. Most students (but not all students, importantly) are exposed to it even before they enter their undergraduate writing classes. Now that we are all conducting our classes remotely, freewrites have become an even more common practice for engaging with students across academic disciplines. This being the case, in this post I would like to think a bit more deeply about freewriting and why it works. This seems useful because although freewriting is generally accepted as a worthwhile educational exercise, students (and even teachers) themselves are often not exploring in any depth the underlying assumptions of why freewriting is so pedagogically valuable. In the era of COVID-19, in which we are radically rethinking what pedagogy itself even is, reconsidering our existing practices (such as freewriting) also seems like a fruitful endeavor.
Freewriting, broadly defined as writing without stopping and editing, was initially advocated as a method by Peter Elbow in his book Writing Without Teachers in 1973. In the simplest terms, freewriting refers to the act of writing quickly for a set time, just putting down whatever is in your mind, without pausing and worrying about what words to use, and without going back to edit what has been written. As Elbow puts it in his book, “the only requirement is that you never stop” (3).
We might subsequently suggest that there are two interrelated senses by which we can approach freewriting: as 1) a method and 2) a model. As outlined above, it is a method for producing writing, but on a theoretical level it is also presenting a model for the way our minds process and produce language. In other words, freewriting is pedagogically useful because it claims to directly tap into the way our minds ordinarily function. If our minds auto-generate thought and language even without our willing them to, freewriting, in the manner of a recording device, becomes the attempt to faithfully transcribe these thoughts. In a nutshell, freewriting is simply the attempt to set a canoe upon the stream of consciousness and chart its path for a time. As a technique, this is interesting because it tends to go against the grain of usual academic instruction, which precisely tries to get the mind to function in ways it normally wouldn’t (writing a “formal” academic paper being one example of this).
Freewriting, we could say, is built on a model of productivity: we are relentless producers of thought and language; therefore, we should capitalize on this excess and externalize it in the world (on the page before you). If this transcribing only produces a bunch of “garbage,” no need to worry! As Elbow quite emphatically states the matter: “There is garbage in your head; it if you don’t let it out onto paper, it really will infect everything else up there. Garbage in your head poisons you. Garbage on paper can safely be put in the wastepaper basket” (8). Here Elbow is arguing against accusations of the “infectious” model of writing (in which the production of bad writing only encourages more bad writing), but he is also making an interesting philosophical argument: our minds are ordinarily chock-full of garbage; therefore, we should attempt, almost in the manner of therapy, to rid ourselves of it so we can focus our attention on those ideas which actually contain value.
Overall, in his defense of freewriting, Elbow argues that freewriting is an organic, developmental process—it is a way to end up thinking something you ordinarily wouldn’t (or couldn’t) have. In other words, the sheer act of freewriting itself begets thinking, which in turn, develops thoughtful writing. Freewriting in this sense is a recursive process that both begins and ends in the written word.
There is much more that could be said about the theoretical underpinnings of freewriting (and to do so would take us beyond the bounds of this short post), but our brief analysis does seem to indicate that freewriting is useful both in terms of method and model; and in fact, it shows that each of these two factors are dependent on (or at least directly correlated with) the other, a quality that all good forms of pedagogy should strive for.
Recognizing this, I would, lastly, like to share some brief ideas about the actual implementation of freewriting in the classroom.
Although freewriting itself is always unstructured, freewriting as a teaching tool can be both unstructured and structured in terms of implementation. For example, freewrites can be planned for the beginning of a class (structured) but also, depending on need, peppered throughout a class in intervals in order to spark discussion (unstructured).
While they can also be generative of thought at any point in a class, it is also worthwhile to consider what comes before and after a freewrite. To use the structured example above, freewriting at the beginning of a class or workshop is useful insofar as it allows participants to generate their own ideas before the instructor even shares their own. In other words, it allows participants to marshal their own background knowledge and evaluate their preconceptions in terms of the new material being presented. But what about after? In the actual classroom setting, we might say the end result of freewriting changes modalities: it usually becomes the impetus for verbal discussion, rather than a written assignment (although it can also be the latter). In other words, freewriting not only effectively produces written expression but also oral expression.
In our current remote environment—in which our only view of our students is usually a small black Zoom screen emblazoned with their name—encouraging our students to verbal expression is perhaps most important, not only for them, but also for us as instructors. As teachers most of us have faced the predicament of deathly silence and blank faces after asking an important question in our classes. Over Zoom, the weight of that silence has become even more onerous: we no longer even have the comfort of blank faces, we have blank, utterly inexpressive screens. I have heard repeatedly from colleagues that many instructors, when faced with this total muteness, immediately feel the need to fill the silence with some kind of speech of their own.
This need is understandable; it comes from a long educational tradition in which every moment in a class is supposed to be filled with “curricular content.” Unfortunately, this is usually counterproductive. Sometimes students actually just need to have time to quietly process their thoughts. Increasing your “wait time” (if even by 15-30 seconds) after asking a question is an important strategy to keep in mind, but often a better approach is just to spend a few minutes letting students freewrite in order to give them the time and space to think the question over.
Interestingly enough, the same can be true if there are too many people who are willing to speak. Teaching remotely, it is very easy—because of lag, or the lack of obvious (spatial) cues such as hand raising—for students to begin speaking at the same time and either talk over one another, or else to realize someone else is speaking and to apologize and stop, recreating the silence all over again. Just as freewriting can help to transform silence into oral expression, if too many students are trying to speak at the same time, it can often be helpful to have students just spend a few minutes freewriting in silence to allow them to organize their thoughts and express them without worry of interruption. Conversation can then commence again once the freewriting is complete.
Overall, it is worthwhile to remember the circumvention of the editing process in freewriting is also a circumvention of our traditional pedagogical models, which are largely grounded in a framework of “assessment” or “evaluation.” Having activities that are not solely based on a model of assessment means students are free to bring their own forms of self-assessment to bear. As we adapt to online teaching, allowing our students time for this kind of conscious self-reflection has become increasingly important. Across the disciplines, freewriting remains a viable tool for promoting critical thinking and engagement in our classes.
Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers (London: Oxford University Press, 1973).