Does Freewriting Need to Be Messy?

How to Impose Structure After You Write

In my experience… the more you do it, the less messy it gets.

That’s not to say the results are the same every time or that freewriting is the same for all people… or that there’s a right way to do it.

My statement applies two ways:

1 . The longer the freewriting session, the more well ordered things can get.

This was my experience even with my first ever 24-hour writing marathon, which I went into without any notion as to what I was going to work on for the next solid 24 hours.

Within probably the first 20 minutes, my attention stabilized and I got into the zone. I more or less stayed in the zone for the rest of the 24 hour marathon. I shifted to different projects, and there was a bit of blur time at those transition points before I got traction, before I really understood — hey, I want to do this other thing now, I want to work on series of fairy tales, now I want to write my goals for the next five years, now I want to reflect on my romantic relationships, now I want to explore a conversation between two people on a park bench, and so on.

2 . Adopting freewriting as a regular habit brings about a more agile organizational sense

The more you adopt freewriting as a regular writing practice, the better you can work with it so that you don’t always make a mess with your words that you have to clean up later.

These days, I always do a morning freewrite, and my intent in that writing is not to order anything, just to let out whatever is there. I write it without ever reading back through what I wrote. If I were to look through the notebook, the only organization I would see is the dated entry for each one. Besides that, I don’t even take paragraph breaks. It’s just a steady stream with no concern for wording or clarity whatsoever. I mainly see my morning freewrite as an opportunity to move things from my mind and onto the page. I’m also able to use it as a way of lightly setting goals for the day or clarifying things, but I never want to become too prescriptive with that practice. I like that it is mainly an unordered dump. It accomplishes things that an insistence on ordered writing could never really do.

The other writing I do each day is basically freewriting, whether I decide to freewrite or not. I write without stopping and proceed until I feel finished with what I am working on. The discipline of this sort of writing has been really helpful to maintain, and it has been reinforced by doing longer writing marathons.

These days, I find that I naturally work in ways that can find somewhat easy organization later on. I bracket off each freewriting session so that I am working on one fundamental component of a larger piece, such as a blog article or a lesson in a course or a chapter in a book.

That amount of material, even if it is very disorderly, is not very difficult to go back into and fix or rewrite, particularly if it was written in a single session.

For some reason, writing that has been pieced together in different writing sessions is harder to organize. I would say that is because each writing session carries a different thrust behind it, even if this difference is only slight. When revising, when feeling back into it, it takes a bit more oomph to know how to add whatever additional connective material might be necessary to fill in the gaps and build bridges between ideas or scenes.

Imposing structure after the fact

I think that the general messiness many freewriters are uncomfortable with comes about from just not being clear yet about what freewriting really is. That messy writing is to be seen and appreciated as part of the process. A mess is not such a bad thing, after all. A mess, in my mind,can be infinitely better than there being nothing whatsoever to work with.

And something automatically tends to happen whenever a writer comes to appreciate the mess. They tap into hidden resources. They find that they are eager to dive in and feel it out, touch the language, and find where the most life is. Those are the parts to honor, and the rest can naturally fall away.

At its messiest, a freewrite can be seen like either a compost pile or a hill of detritus where later the writer combs bach through with a metal detector searching for anything of value.

It is necessary to see this writing as fundamentally different than normal writing. It is not to be corrected or criticized. It’s writing that is not about the language. It’s about what is behind the language: the feelings, the spaces evoked, the themes.

This, I think, is the most important concept for people to get so that freewriting can work for them. There needs to be a visceral engagement in the process. Unless the writer is really willing to see writing as a different thing entirely than what they are accustomed to doing, there really is no sense in trying freewriting. Maybe they can learn to write faster that way, but if that is all they learn, they will miss out on some of the real transformational possibilities in doing this work — in engaging the flow, which is what freewriting is directly about.

The heart of the matter is that when you do gain a visceral and vital feel of your written work — an understanding of it that goes beyond the superficial — then this apparently messy process will actually reveal a side of your writing that shows you ways of having a complete and durable sense of navigational ability with what you are writing about. You can come to sense your topic, your story, your characters, from the inside out. No longer do you need to rely on what has merely been literally put down. You can get a sense for it as if you’re really in touch with it; you’re resting on your authority as an author of this material.

When you encounter what some might judge to be a messy bunch of writing that you actually feel in complete command about, you realize that it would be no big deal for you to explain the same thing a different way, for example. To write it all again. Freewriting brings you to a level of easy come, easy go. It is an abundance mindset way to compose.

But maybe you’re wondering what to do with the mess that gets made when you freewrite.

Some strategies for ordering a mess

The main one is to go back through and isolate — highlight, underline — the parts that move you, that have vitality, that get you to ask questions and lean in. You can paste them elsewhere or you can simply make a good note of them as you read.

Then your choice is to write again, after having taken those things into account, or you can use the pasted material to freewrite more and expand around them as if those were your center, and you need to expand outward around them, to nest them more fully in a wreath of complimentary ideas.

How messy your freewrite will be really depends on your intent when you write it. It becomes tricky to give blanket advice, since you can use freewriting for all sorts of things, and each freewriting session is different.

For example, let’s say you want to write a nonfiction book about a topic. You know what your topic is, so your next step is to come up with main ideas and chapter headings that stem from that topic.

You can freewrite on that topic to generate that outline. Write from a high elevation level on the topic and when you come up with something that could be a heading, set it apart with some white space and move on to the next one. It can be tempting to follow each chapter heading and want to write it then and there, but it’s important to honor the intention of each session, and since the intent was to explore chapter headings, that’s where you will probably want to keep your attention. Of course, follow where the most life is. If something is particularly alive, and the chapter search quest feels dull in comparison, you might be missing a unique opportunity by rigidly clinging to your initial idea.

At the end of such a session, you will have a long list of chapter headings and some possible extra bits that might fit in as content here or there. Cut and paste becomes your friend.

Lots of specific examples which I get into more in my Depth Freewriting course but the main idea, the golden key, is to set your intent before you write. That alone can keep the messiness to a minimum. Even a basic form of structuring as you go such as leaving yourself a bit of white space can be all you need.

Before long, you have a solid and durable outline that will be the envy of your anal-retentive friends!

It can be your secret the mess you made how you came up with such a well ordered list…

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