People don’t enjoy writing because they have been taught wrong. They learned to write by placing undue pressure on themselves. They need to get it right! They need to know what they are planning to say before they start to write anything! They have no tolerance for uncertainty and looseness.
How can you hope to achieve greatness unless you afford yourself tons of room to explore? Explorers do things that other people would label mistakes, and they keep going.
Some people can’t stand the sight of typos in their manuscripts, and they find it hard to resist going back and correcting wording mistakes or grammar issues. This is a bad habit, and all the little red underlining done by spell checkers doesn’t really help matters much.
Writing can feel hard when you place imaginary burdens on yourself that you have to have something to say – the right thing to say – and all in the right order. Anything less is labeled a mistake.
Not only is it OK to make mistakes, you really need to see mistakes as part of the process.
Writing is more complicated than having a conversation, but it doesn’t need to be much harder than talking with a good friend about something you are excited about. When you’re excited and you feel connected with your reader, you get out of your own way. You let it come easy for you. When you hit a snag, you acknowledge it and then you let it pass.
If you want one simple technique that can change everything, it’s this: when you write, write without stopping.
Freewriting is about focusing your energy on one thing at a time, continuing with it until you are finished. Resist or ignore the urge to switch gears. Instead, plod forward.
Yeah, but I want to stop writing sometimes
I’m a freewriting evangelist, but I am not dogmatic about it — being dogmatic would go against the “free” part of freewriting.
When I start writing, I like to continue until I am finished.
Unless I sneeze. Then I pause, sneeze, and return to writing.
I don’t sneeze that often.
The point is that it is not necessary to stop writing to get ideas for what you want to say next. You can stop if you want, but it’s not necessary. You can just continue to write and write what occurs to you at the time. You can add or change things later.
Pause first, before freewriting
Often, just prior to beginning a freewrite, I pause for a moment. I close my eyes and I go inside. I center and ground myself. Freewriting is really great at getting up there into the clouds but it is not always the best activity for grounding oneself. So if I’m not already feeling grounded, I pause before I start freewriting and feel my breath, my belly, the earth beneath me. I am calling this pausing, not stopping, to distinguish between two very different impulses, basically analogous to pausing a song versus stopping it.
When I pause, I understand the continuity is on both sides of my pause. I feel the flow and I choose to remain inactive for a time. I take the opportunity to deepen my engagement with my presence in this body in this room on this planet.
Stopping is an interruption to the flow. Stopping in the middle of a freewrite is against the law (International Freewriting Code, page 31, section 4b). Writers who stop while they are writing are inviting block and distraction.
The appeal of stopping is to hope that other better ideas will land. And sometimes something happens, but who is to say that it couldn’t have happened better if the writer had simply continued writing?
Ideas can definitely land while you are writing. In my experience as a freewriter, ideas land better when I am actually writing. In the flow, ideas sync up with the flow of language and I find it easier to write long coherent passages that are connected with where I was coming from and where I hope to go.
What happens when you stop instead of writing continually?
In short, nothing happens. When you stop, you stop.
I won’t say that stopping is bad, but in my experience, it’s not as fruitful as continuing to write.
So yeah, stopping is bad.
Next time, try this
OK, let’s say you have decided to freewrite. You are a couple of minutes into a session. You’re writing words, but they don’t necessarily cohere into sentences. It feels weird. You wonder why you are doing this, bothering to write incoherent phrases and words. You weigh your options: continue or stop and think. Maybe it would be better if you stopped so that you could get a better fix on what you are trying to say.
Instead of stopping, try asking yourself a question. It can be anything. Questions are powerful! Take for example a question like “What am I trying to say here?” That can make all the difference. It puts the power in your hands. You take an active role in the shaping of your language. A question opens up possibilities, engages you. You can get curious, go on the offensive, and be optimistic. If that question doesn’t immediately light something up, you can ask it again, ask it differently, or ask a different question.
My suggestion is to phrase your questions so that they can lead toward where you want to go. Instead of writing “What is wrong with me that I can’t figure this out?” try writing “What feels most true about this book?” “What am I going to love about this next chapter?” “What would be something outrageous and hilarious that totally won’t work for this story but would be awesome to write about?”
There is immense power in asking questions. Next time you get stuck, pivot your trajectory by asking empowering ones. It will make all the difference.