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Freewriting for fun and profit

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We’ve all felt it: the terror and frustration of staring at a blank page for hours, convinced that we’ve somehow lost the ability to communicate using the written word.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a novelist working on your tenth book or an administrative assistant drafting an email about the company picnic. Writer’s block can strike anywhere, anytime. And the only way out is through.

The Method

One of the best ways to get through a bout of writer’s block is by freewriting. In freewriting, you just put words down on paper for a set period of time. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, or even spelling. As dedicated grammar geeks, this is really hard to do, but trying to edit your writing as you go defeats the purpose of this exercise.

Stay loose, be outrageous, and write whatever pops into your head. Don’t worry if it’s good or if it makes any sense. You can write longhand or on the computer (or, if you really must, on a vintage Underwood typewriter), but the key is not to stop putting words on paper until the time is up.

The Habit

As with any habit, it takes time and repletion to become second nature. On his excellent blog Zen Habits, Leo Babauta advises starting small. If you want to get into shape, it’s less intimidating (and, in the long run, more realistic) to do three push-ups every morning than to get an expensive gym membership, buy brand-new running shoes, and sign up for a 10k. The same is true with developing a writing practice. Commit to writing a modest amount: ten minutes, for example, or a single page.

In her classic book Bird by Bird, Writer Anne Lamott passes on the same advice she gives to her students when facing writer’s block: “[G]et one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams or stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing — just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming too arthritic, just because they have made a commitment to try to write three hundred words every day. Then, on bad days and weeks, let things go at that… Your unconscious can’t work when you are breathing down its neck. You’ll sit there going, ‘Are you done in there yet, are you done in there yet?’ But it is trying to tell you nicely, ‘Shut up and go away.’”

The Inspiration

Sometimes you may need a little extra help to get started. If you find that your mind is as blank as the page in front of you, it may be time to break out a writing prompt. A Google search usually yields a lot of journal prompts intended for kids, but there are a few good lists out there for grownups, such as this one. Another good source for inspiration is the “Explore” page on Flickr, which shows a set of randomly chosen images from its vast collection of photos. Another fun technique is to take the first line of a famous work and run with it. (Here are 100 great first lines to get you started.)

Remember, the prompt is just a starting point, and no one is going to know if you veer off in a new and unexpected direction. In fact, that’s half the fun of freewriting!

The Next Step

After you’ve completed a freewriting exercise, you’ll probably find that you have a big pile of nonsense on your hands. That’s okay. The point of freewriting is not to produce usable prose. Instead, look through what you’ve written to find a hidden gem of an idea, a turn a phrase that strikes the ear nicely. Even if you don’t find any salvageable words, the exercise is meant to prime the pump, so to speak, and conquer the blank page. Once you’ve spent five or ten minutes writing, the next twenty or thirty will be much easier—and more productive, too.

What’s your favorite technique to break through writer’s block? Please share it in the comments!

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