What’s the Difference Between Open and Focused Freewriting?

Open Freewriting

Open freewriting is completely openended. You just write. The simplicity of methodology doesn’t mean that you are limited to what can emerge. With open freewriting, it is especially true that anything can happen. Open freewriting is a place for you to be wild, chaotic, totally free, totally present. Always in the act of letting go.


My morning ritual of freewriting just after waking is a kind of open freewrite. I wake, find my notebook, and start writing. My writing can be illegible. My sentence structure can be so imperfect that I actually interrupt myself mid-stream. I just write whatever is most alive, going with wherever I feel the clearest impetus. It is open in the sense that I have no specific goals for it. I do have a sense of clarity about the reason why I write first thing in the morning — even before meditating. But I have no specific goals for making the writing mean something or be used in any way. I actually believe it would be a big disservice to the kind of writing open freewriting wants to be. Because I know no one else –probably including myself — will ever read back through this, it allows for a complete freedom unavailable any other way.

Open freewriting is openended, written with open focus and an open mind.

Focused Freewriting

Open focus also plays a part in focused freewriting. And since it is freewriting, you still want to go with what comes. The difference between open freewriting and focused freewriting is whether there is someone driving the car.

Focused freewriting means having an overarching idea you are working towards. Although everything is welcome, you are generally gearing towards some intended outcome.


Spend a moment getting clear about your project. Sit quiet and still for a time, getting a sense for the main elements, the center concepts, the touchstones, the essence of your project.

Take a few minutes plotting out some principle elements of your project. If you are writing a chapter in a novel, this might be the changes in location your main character makes, and some of the most important interactions they have. What are the main beats, turns, reversals?

So what about very focused freewriting?

At the far end of the spectrum, very focused freewriting takes a more fine-grained approach.

It’s similar to writing based on a plan. The difference is you just agree to write without stopping.

Why is stopping so bad?

Stopping isn’t bad. Stopping is unwelcome because stopping means you’re doing something else. Something besides what you want. The idea is to stay in the flow. If you break the flow, you miss out.

Very focused freewriting is like having an itemized outline for what you want to write.

It involves having a lot of guidelines for what to write so that you can proceed from one point to the next.

Think of your structure as like having boxes to fill. Once you have the boxes laid out, it’s just a matter of putting in them what belongs there. It’s fine if your material comes out in an imperfect way or if it’s not stated correctly or in an imperfect order. Since you have boxes, you can reposition things later.

You can also reposition the boxes themselves.

When you opt to freewrite in a focused manner, boxes are your friend.

The workflow goes something like this:

  1. You need to have some idea of what you want to write.
  2. Spend the first span of time deciding what structural elements you want to use.
  3. Write without stopping and move from one point to the next.

Bonus: How to do a focused freewrite when you don’t know what you want to write about

If you feel like writing but don’t have any idea what you want to write about, then consider going with open freewriting.

If you don’t want to do that, spend a moment in stillness getting a feel for your notion for what you might want to write about.

During this phase, let the world go, get grounded, and take the opportunity to really connect with the depth and breadth of a possible topic, whatever feels alive for you in the moment. You might get some clear ideas and you might get vague or blurry notions for what stuff you are interested in exploring. A chapter. A saga. A song. A poem. A question you want to explore.

Give yourself an idea for how long you will spend on it. If you’re writing a chapter, do you want to spend a couple of hours on it? If you’re writing a saga, then how much time do you want to spend during this session?

It’s OK if you don’t know. Flexibility is our friend too.

What happens when you set a timeframe is that it also helps you set your own expectations for how to pace yourself. If you realize you are setting a tight goal, then you can potentially use that sense of urgency to your advantage, whereas if you went into it without that prior consideration, you would miss that opportunity, and maybe you wouldn’t realize you should be trying to write faster.

You may get a sense for how to break your larger topic down into smaller bits during this initial phase.

It’s OK if it’s hazy or if you don’t notice that you have any answers.

More might be happening than you realize.

You’ll spend the first segment of your writing time developing a rough outline or a kind of structure for your document. Laying out the main points, the important bits and highlights, the headlines, the main points to address. This is an optional step depending on the project and how you like to work.

Then write continuously either to flesh out your initial jot or to just begin at the original impulse and keep going. Don’t hold anything back or save any bits till later. Start with the good stuff and keep going. Many times authors believe they need to hold something till later and if they do so it’ll be more dramatic. Then they end up writing filler, and they wonder why the reader doesn’t bother making it very far into their book. Well, they don’t make it to the good stuff because they had to wade through filler material.

So, start with the good stuff. If you need to reorder it, you can. Vitality will lead to greater vitality.

Finish it. Then you have a draft.

Tips for focusing and refocusing as you write

As you write, hold in mind the big picture of your project. Of course, let things change if that feels right. The purpose of this is to ensure that you remain on topic. It’s great to follow your impulses to highlight whatever feels most alive for you, and in fact those little diversions can add a great deal of interest to your written piece. Moreso if you make a return to the main points.

As needed, take a peek at your initial mockup during the planning stage.

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