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The Real Advantage of Freewriting

Nearly any activity that contains the word “free” as a prefix will likely function in this same way. It’s a method that leads primarily to the clarity of ideas.

Quick question: When was the last time you got in your car and drove around town without a goal? How much gas did you spend on completing the circuit? What about time? Did you stop anywhere for a sandwich? Did you meet anyone interesting along the way? Would the drive have been any better or worse if you had a destination in mind?

If you’ve ever gotten in your car and drove without a destination, why?

Take a second to think about that.

Now, I know that driving without a destination has a similar emotional purpose as going for a walk or painting a picture or doing anything that allows you to clear your head. It’s therapeutic. But where did you go? Anywhere? What does your painting look like? Any progress to show for it?

Even though walking has its primary goal rooted in exercise and painting has the purpose of creating art, these activities also have the secondary purpose of offering you clarity of a situation, especially when freethinking during the core activity leads to new ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a bonus side effect to the therapeutic goal you’re trying to achieve, which is to make yourself or your art look better. Now you can also think better.

If you’ve done any amount of relaxing activity, you know this is true.

So with that said, here’s a free idea to think about:

Nearly any activity that contains the word “free” as a prefix will likely function in this same way. It’s a method that leads primarily to the clarity of ideas.

Freewriting is one such activity that carries this exact purpose. Makes the practice attractive to most writers.

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Image of fountain pen on lined paper, taken from Pixabay.

The problem, however, is that most writing instructors teach freewriting as an exercise for oiling the writing engine, as a means to get into the mood before getting into the project or as a means for figuring out what you want to write about, and not so much about what makes freewriting useful. It sounds noble on the surface. But it can also sound like a waste of time if you misuse it.

Now for a confession. As a writer, I must say that I hate freewriting. I often find that there’s not much point to it. If I want to write, I go right for the story, just as I would go right for my destination when getting into the car and turning on the engine.

But as a writer, I also find that some efforts to write compelling prose goes wasted because I haven’t developed the proper skill that would allow me to keep the prose effective. This is where freewriting might serve a useful purpose.

Case in point: To this day, I still have trouble showing character emotions through any action not involving the eyes or the mouth. In the heat of developing a scene, I want to capture the thrill of the moment without obsessing over the character’s reactionary expressions, and the eyes and the mouth are the cheapest sources to exploit. Once the scene is finished and I have time to review each character’s actions and reactions, I realize that I have nothing new to add. It’s not because I don’t need to make changes—I always need to change something—but it’s because I haven’t developed the skill to make that specific improvement.

For example, according to The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, a reaction to fright (under the definition for “fear”), which I might show through “widening eyes” or an “agape mouth,” can also be shown through clammy hands or a move toward escape (and whatever props are necessary to convey this), or any number of additional actions or reactions that are specific to that character.

 

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Cover image for The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi

Of course, in the heat of writing, I might not initially think of this, nor would I likely crack open The Emotion Thesaurus to find the proper expression to add authenticity to the first draft of the scene. But at some point I need to go back and add in the detail that best shows what the character is feeling rather than simply telling the reader what he or she is feeling.

While it’s certainly valid to practice this skill on my actual novel, just as it’s valid to practice my driving skills while trying to get to a particular destination, there’s something to be said about using freewriting as the canvas for developing this skill, since freewriting has no other purpose but to generate thoughts and ideas prior to committing to the project.

For example, if I want to get better at creating character expressions, I can start by writing a disembodied scene that features a character I know nothing about who emotes really, really well, and learn from the experience. I can even use The Emotion Thesaurus to help me craft the scene:

Bob drove his fingernail under the edge of the envelope and cracked it open. Ignoring his impulse to rip the whole thing apart, he merely peeked into the gap and caught a glimpse of something pink. He flipped the envelope over. It was his name on the front. But he didn’t recognize the return address.

The envelope leapt out of his hand and landed on the desk. Or maybe he tossed it. But whatever happened, Bob pushed himself away from the desk and considered leaving the room.

The problem was that today was his birthday, but he didn’t know the person who was sending him the birthday card, nor did he know why they were sending it to him. The fact that it was his birthday wasn’t good enough for him to trust the source. Was he being watched somehow?

Hopefully the emotion is clear: I’m indicating Bob’s suspicion of the sender (and the card).

My impulse is to give him “narrowing eyes” when he stares at the card. I’ve got plenty of examples where a character has this exact reaction to something equally suspicious. In fairness, The Emotion Thesaurus lists this “narrowing eyes” expression at the top of its action list for “suspicion,” maybe because it’s the most obvious character response. But it also lists “retreating or keeping at a safe distance” as a possible reaction. For some characters, this might be a ridiculous reaction. For Bob, it’s a perfectly suitable one. And that’s the point, and that’s why I use it instead of “Bob narrowed his eyes at the envelope.” This reaction is not only used less often than “narrowing eyes,” but it says something about Bob’s response to items he doesn’t understand. I could use this example as a baseline for additional reactions to other items or situations throughout the story that Bob may interact with. In short, Bob is jumpy, and now I know that. If I saved this scene for the heat of the moment, I might’ve missed that idea and found myself writing an inconsistent character when, in the next scene, he sees a suspicious object and runs toward it.

Freewriting a standalone scene that has no stake in my story won’t move my story forward, but it can at least help me understand my character better.

So, my message today is simply this: If you lack a particular writing skill, use freewriting to fine-tune it. It’ll make implementation into your important projects much easier and you less prone to stalled writing as you try to think of the perfect way to communicate an idea. Because, let’s face it, sometimes we can’t recapture the heat of the moment in the rewrite, no matter how good we are at faking it.

And for one more note of clarity: You don’t really need to use freewriting for any other purpose. If you can’t warm your engines on your actual novel, then maybe your novel isn’t ready to be written.

Thanks for reading. Be sure to check out Angela Ackerman and Bella Puglisi’s thesaurus series to improve your knowledge base. They’ve got a new one about occupations coming out in two weeks, and like their other thesauri, it looks promising. I highly recommend their books.

I also highly recommend that you subscribe to this blog because you learn things here. Usually. Sometimes.

Cover Image: Pixabay