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Duke

Freewriting

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I am in my first university English classes and was recently introduced to freewriting by my teacher. He told us that freewriting helps you improve as a writer if practiced consistently. I was very skeptical of this, since the method involves writing down everything that comes to mind in a stream-of-consciousness manner without stopping to think.

This is Wikipedia's article explaining freewriting.

My goal when writing, at least in college, is to write non-fiction essays that must be carefully and consciouslly thought out. Most of these essays will include using citations and referencing research on subjects that are new to me. Can freewriting help me much or are there more effective ways to improve my writing?

Here is Freewriting by Peter Elbow. He was the major proponent of the style.

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My goal when writing, at least in college, is to write non-fiction essays that must be carefully and consciouslly thought out. Most of these essays will include using citations and referencing research on subjects that are new to me. Can freewriting help me much or are there more effective ways to improve my writing?

I couldn't get the wikipedia link to work, and I read only a couple of paragraphs of the other link.

If the purpose of "freewriting" is to learn to write from the subconscious without placing barricades (from the conscious mind) in the way, then it might be helpful. Many beginning writers write "with the brakes on." That means they start to type a draft and in the midst of the outpouring that should come from the subconscious, they close the valve, so to speak, by simultaneously trying to edit or to debate the exact best word choice. It can't be done.

In other words they run the river of conscious effort head-on into the river of subconscious effort -- and end up with a muddy, swirling whirlpool that leads to nothing productive.

The proper way to write, as Ayn Rand has explained so well, is to move back and forth between conscious work (as in the planning and editing stages) and working from the subconscious (as in the actual process of typing out a draft, from an outline). Doing both at the same time is a disaster.

P. S. -- For anyone seriously interested in writing (either fiction or nonfiction), I highly recommend Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction, edited by R. Mayhew. It deserves slow, careful study. Our local Objectivist Story-Tellers group spent months discussing it closely.

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Bryan, is this is an English Literature class (say, English 101) or is it a Writing class which happens to be taught by the English department?

In the U.S., these courses are usually taught separately. The first exposes you to literature and (ostensibly) teaches you how to appreciate it. The second teaches you how to gather your thoughts and put them on paper. Writing courses are further divided into two types: basic composition, which is a core requirement for all freshmen and sophomores, and Fiction Writing, which is an elective.

If this is your setup there in BC, then I would say that your basic composition courses (or Writing 101/201) will be the better place for you to learn more about what interests you: writing nonfiction essays.

During my own university studies of English Lit and Writing, the only so-called freewriting I ever encountered was in an English Literature class, not in a Writing class.

Not only was it harmless, but I benefitted from it. The content wasn't graded, so I could say whatever-the-heck I wanted to. I would put my willpower in gear, give myself about a minute to compose my thoughts, then proceed to learn how to dash off some pretty gratifying essays on the fly.

I'm a writer now — fiction writer by plan, technical writer by necessity — and I do not "free write". But no harm ever came from that one experience, so I'd say just go with it. I bet that you'll find other, better opportunities to learn real writing skills in some other class.

You might also ask your professor what he's aiming for with the exercise. It may have less to do with the writing itself and more to do with something like "opening your mind to your critical and creative self", or in other words, being a more thoughtful reader and critic.

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Here is Freewriting by Peter Elbow. He was the major proponent of the style.

From the above:

Writing has the advantage of permitting more editing. But that's its downfall too.

That sounds too much like the old hippie axiom of, "Act now, think later." I have seen to many letters/emails from people who write as they talk. The only thing I can say in their favor is that it is usually without the "ums", "uhhs", "likes", and "you knows".

However, this may be similar to a problem solving technique known as "mind storming". Similar to brain storming, it relies on ideas to be generated without taking the time for evaluation, thus causing you, (or others in the case of brain storming), to let previous ideas link and lead to new ones.

As with many techniques, it is probably valuable when used properly by conscientious, knowledgable individuals.

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...

The proper way to write, as Ayn Rand has explained so well, is to move back and forth between conscious work (as in the planning and editing stages) and working from the subconscious (as in the actual process of typing out a draft, from an outline). Doing both at the same time is a disaster.

P. S. -- For anyone seriously interested in writing (either fiction or nonfiction), I highly recommend Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction, edited by R. Mayhew. It deserves slow, careful study. Our local Objectivist Story-Tellers group spent months discussing it closely.

I second Burgess's recommendation. What I remember most from this book is also the idea that there is a division of labor between the conscious and subconscious. When writing a first draft, it can be good to let your subconscious be in charge. But then later, you'd have to consciously edit your writing. The problem would come if you tried to write the first draft and edit it at the same time.

I'm not a writer by trade, but when I have a job to do (for me, a piece of software to write) or some issue that I want to think about, one way to get started is to sometimes just write out all of my thoughts on the subject. Don't organize them or ask if they're really relevant; just write down every thought that I think might have to be considered. (Of course, this only works if it's a subject that I'm already likely to have good thoughts on, so it's dependent on my having already "done my homework.") Then, I can look at the list, organize it hierarchically, cross off some items, and add and amplify others. So I've used my subconscious to retrieve what I already know, but then I use my conscious mind to decide what, if anything, to do about it. (And of course if I were to just stop at the first step, my work would be a mess.)

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