Learning to free write: Magic at work

Tips and news about writing, and writing in education.

Free writing is often thought to be writing that is free of constraints; to free-write is to Write without Worrying—without worrying about being neat, right or correct in grammar.

But it is more than that, too.

Free writing has a purpose beyond the idea of just letting the pen flow. Ralph Wahlstrom says “it’s as close to magic as anything you are likely to experience in writing.” Apart from allowing yourself to write without constraints of making sense or putting capitals and full stops in the right place, it is a trigger to freeing up your mind  because it relies on the mechanics of your body to act without instruction from your mind.

Here’s how you do it:

Get comfortable,
take your writing instrument in hand
(pen, keyboard, chalk…)
and begin to write … about anything,
the first images and words that appear in your head,
put them on the page
and then the next
and the next
and … so on.
Keep going.
Do not take your pen
from the page,
or your fingers from the
Do not go back
to read what you have just
Keep writing
until you have filled
the page,
or filled five minutes
(or ten or fifteen).


This takes practise. Students need to do this on a regular basis in order to get comfortable with the idea that their minds will produce lots of random nonsense. It can be used for the first ten minutes of a lesson.

But is it all nonsense?

I find practising this on a daily basis to be a rich source of gathering ideas, turns of phrase I would not otherwise have thought of.

The technique is to do the writing — limited either by a time or a page length — and then read it backwards, from end back to the beginning, listening and looking for any combinations that strike as unusual. They might be unusual images, sounds, or phrases that conjure something a little odd.

Underline them.

Then go back through the piece looking at the underlined phrases, work them over backwards and forwards, and if you find that they standout in any way, transpose them to a fresh page.

I do two things with that capture:

  • One, I add those phrases to my ‘phrase book’, the place I look when I’m stuck for something a little odd one of my characters might say, or a way to describe something, compose a metaphor.
  • Second, I use one of those phrases to kick off another little writing exercise, which I will tell you about in a future post.

Here is an example of mine from 30th May, 2017.

Speckled spots before my eyes on the spread, some in red, some in green, some a yellow green. They take the shape of large balls colliding, overlapping like a venn diagrams, crashing into each other like planets in the cosmos about to be swallowed by black holes. Of course the cover beneath is fabric, soft and plushy, with little bulk beneath it giving warmth. The way the winter is kept at bay, how the cold remains away, without purchase on the heat of the moment, there is no way it can get in, it is just barred. The warmth is imprisoned beneath the cover, trapped, ensnared, it has no escape nowhere to run, now way out. It’s not as though the outside temperature has any bearing, it doesn’t; only the state of mind has a bearing, like a compass, a wayfinder, a beam across the roof, above the ceiling out of sight, holding the roof, keeping out the wind and the rain and other inclement atmospherics. Inclement is that word they use when they want to say bad, or antisocial,but it’ not applied to people, it’s applied to inanimate things, although weather is animate in a sense, not like an animal, but it moves and alters its shape and composition and what makes it what it is.

My extracted phrases reduced to ones of high interest:

is it what it makes









What I now have is a passage of free writing with some phrases underlined, and a list of those phrases and word combinations that interest me the most.

If you do this exercise five times a week, it will take less than an hour, you will have five passages and possibly 20-40 new phrases in your phrase book, not to mention ideas for stories, scenes and poems.

It truly is magic at work.

Leave a Reply