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We’ve all been there.
Our fingers freeze above the keyboard. The pen stops scribbling, seemingly of its own accord. The cursor blinks, taunting us.
Maybe we don’t know what happens next in the story. Maybe we feel overwhelmed at how much revision the draft needs, so we avoid opening the document altogether. Maybe we’re frustrated, confused, or just plain bored.
Whether you want to call it writer’s block, losing your mojo, or a creative speed-bump—feeling like you can’t keep writing can really, really suck.
There are a multitude of strategies for busting through blocks, but freewriting might be the simplest of them all.
Free your pen, free your mind
The concept of freewriting is very straightforward: Set a timer for five to ten minutes and write—typically longhand, with pen and paper—without stopping or worrying about mechanics, grammar, or quality of writing.
Try to keep your pen moving until the timer goes off, even if all you can write is “I don’t know what to write.” Just keep going.
Freewriting is not a new concept. William Butler Yeats, Dorothea Brande, and Jack Kerouac all used freewriting in one form or another. Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron both advocate for freewriting as an important developmental practice for writers and artists alike.
The goal is not to produce “good” writing; rather, the ultimate goal of freewriting is to free up your mind to put words on the page, stretch your imagination, and get the creative juices flowing.
Here are 10 different ways you can use freewriting to overcome writer’s block.
1. Figure out what happens next
This is one of the most common cases of writer’s block: we don’t know what happens next, so we freeze up and stop writing.
I’ve definitely been there. My palms start sweating, my mouth goes dry, I pull on my hair until it sticks straight out. And still that blinking cursor is mocking me!
It can feel impossible to move forward.
Instead of slamming your head against the keyboard, try free writing for five to ten minutes. Use the space to imagine possibilities for what might happen next.
If you’re not sure where to begin, start with what you know already: who the characters are, what they want, or other plot points you’ve planned but haven’t written yet.
2. Eliminate the blank page
Ah, another common source of writer’s block: the fear of the blank page!
And I get it—the blank page can be intimidating AF. It reminds us of all we have left to do, all of the ways we can go wrong… but as Jodi Picoult says, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
Here’s a simple way to eliminate that fear: Do a freewrite and then type it directly into your document.
BOOM. No more blank page!
When you freewrite, resist the urge to try to make it “good.” Give yourself permission to write the worst junk you’ve ever seen. This is a place where it’s safe to stumble.
By skipping over the blank page, you’ve given yourself a place to begin and some solid momentum for moving forward.
3. Use freewriting as a warmup
You wouldn’t run a marathon or start powerlifting without warming up, right?
If writing is a muscle, freewriting can be a warmup—lightly stretching and working the muscle without getting too intense.
You can freewrite about nothing in particular, or you can use a writing prompt. Natalie Goldberg provides tons of prompts in her book Writing Down the Bones.
The goal isn’t necessarily to work on your WIP (although you certainly can) but simply to rev up the writing engine so you’re primed and ready to dive into your work.
4. Can’t make a decision? Test out the possibilities
This is one of my favorite ways to use freewriting because I hate making decisions.
(Seriously, ask my partner what it’s like trying to get me to pick a takeout place.)
Decisions can feel stifling. Sometimes it feels like if I make one choice—about a plot point, a character arc, or a potential revision—then I’m somehow deciding the course for the entire story. It feels like I can’t make any progress until I deal with that decision.
Thankfully, I’ve learned how to freewrite my way through the decision-making process.
If you run into this block, too, try using a freewrite to give your options a test drive: What would happen if the character did x? What ramifications would this have on the rest of the story? Which outcome is the most interesting?
5. Idea dump
When you’re working on a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, do you keep all the pieces in the box until you’re done?
Of course not! You dump the pieces out. You turn them over so they’re all picture-side-up. (And then you sort out the edge pieces, corner pieces, and middle pieces.)
This is what an “idea dump” is all about: getting your thoughts and ideas out of your head so they are all in front of you. Once the ideas are on a page, they become a lot easier to work with.
Don’t worry about what ideas are good, or bad, or ugly. Just get them down.
The goal here is to reduce the “cognitive load” of writing—when you aren’t trying to keep track of all your ideas at once, your brain is free to focus on the writing, creating, and storytelling.
6. Snap yourself out of “editing mode”
Has this ever happened to you?
You start writing a sentence, but—oh, no, that’s no good, let me edit that—and then—oh, wait, I thought of a better word here, let me go back and change it—and then—hold on let me just swap out this one last thing…
As writers, sometimes we put an incredible amount of pressure on ourselves to make a piece absolutely perfect.
When we get stuck in “editing mode,” it can be difficult to make progress on a draft.
If you need to be in drafting mode—and thus want to turn the editing part of your brain off—freewriting can be a great way to lower the stakes and get your brain focused on creating, rather than revising or fixing.
7. Answer a question
If you’re trying to figure out something specific—say, what a new character wants, details of your invented world, or the contents of a scene—try starting your freewrite with a question.
This technique is often called “focused freewriting” because rather than letting your mind wander wherever it wants, you focus on responding to a particular question or set of questions.
What does this character want? Why is this important to them?
How do people dress in this world? What is the local cuisine like? What role does religion play in the culture?
What is the conflict in this scene? How does the conflict affect different characters?
Write the question at the top of the page, and then start the timer. Use the focused freewrite to respond to the question, without judging the quality of the answer.
8. Clear your head of excess noise
I need to schedule my loan payment… My roommate is driving me crazy… Oh god, I hope those murder hornets don’t invade my state and decapitate all our honeybees…
How are we supposed to write when our heads are buzzing with all of this excess stuff?
You can use freewriting to dump out any baggage that gets in the way.
Once you start the timer, just start writing whatever is in your head—tasks you need to remember to complete, complaints about your home or love life, concerns about the state of the world (which are, of course, plentiful).
Get those things out of your head (and onto a page) so your mind can be clear and fresh when you sit down to write.
9. Brainstorm: go for quantity
Sometimes you just need to find that missing puzzle piece in order to keep moving forward.
This might be an idea, character, or scene in the middle of a project, or it might be the concept for the whole story at the beginning of a project.
Either way, freewriting is a great way to brainstorm.
Challenge yourself to come up with as many ideas as possible before the timer runs out. Try not to judge any of your ideas—the game is quantity over quality at this point.
Giving yourself permission to suck frees up your mind to play, making you more likely to come up with original, unintuitive ideas.
In fact, I recommend setting a longer timer for this kind of freewrite—ten, fifteen, even twenty minutes. This allows you to exhaust the obvious ideas and dig even deeper the longer the time goes on—that’s where you strike gold.
10. Go deeper on an idea, character, world, object, etc.
Freewriting is a great tool for when you want to deepen your own understanding of the world and story you’re creating.
Perhaps you want to get to know a character on a more profound level, or you’re trying to solidify the world-building so your landscape feels more real on the page. Perhaps you had an idea for a concept or theme and want to expand your understanding before exploring it in your story.
Use a freewrite to do a deep dive on that specific element.
Really let your mind and imagination play, and be open to discovery. You may find this process reveals things you hadn’t realized or expressed before.
In psychoanalysis, there’s a concept called “the unthought known”—this is something you already know deep down, but you haven’t yet brought it to the surface by expressing it through language.
Freewriting like this can help us bring out those unthought knowns so we can use them in our writing.
Go forth and write
Freewriting is not just one strategy to be applied in one way—rather, it’s a multipurpose tool that can be used in a variety of ways to unlock a multitude of possibilities.
I encourage you to try something new with freewriting, especially if there are things on this list you haven’t done before. Every writer’s process is different, and figuring out how to use the tools in your arsenal to best serve your process is part of the journey.
Because once we figure out how to bust through our blocks no matter what form they take, there’s no end to what we can accomplish.
And that blinking cursor can finally stop taunting us.
Need more strategies for defeating writer’s block? Check out our cheat sheet of 10 simple strategies for overcoming any kind of block in your writing.