Benefits of free-writing for your college essay (and creative hygiene!)
At this time of year, I start preaching Free-writing as the solution to starting your college essay.
Starting, for most students, is the hardest part, and free-writing takes away this obstacle entirely.
If you get in the habit of free-writing now you will:
- Have lots of material by the time you actually need to write an essay.
- Discover things about yourself– always a plus.
- Have a technique to fall back on any time you get stuck in writing.
These three things alone are more valuable to you over a life-time than even the most knock-out college essay!
What is free-writing, again, and why should you care?
Free-writing is what it sounds like, writing freely–or “automatically.” Some people call it “stream of conscious” writing. The name is less important than the process.
Free-writing to combat writer’s block or fear of a crappy essay or thinking you have nothing to say is like jumping off a cliff when you are afraid of cold water below: you jump to address the fear and stalling, not after the fear has magically resolved.
When you free-write, you just write, even (and especially) if you sincerely believe you have “NOTHING TO WRITE ABOUT” (I’ll call this “NTWA” syndrome).
** NTWA Syndrome is the Big Lie your mind is telling you, when it forgets that it was born creative, and that it comes up with stuff all the time, incessantly. In fact, you can’t really get your mind to have nothing going on if you deeply want to. But that’s a different post. For now, if you feel NTWA syndrome, just tell yourself “BS! Life is my Material! Imma free-write my way outta this delusion!”
Free-writing is a technique, not a hot mess or cheap self-help. So here’s how to train yourself. I suggest doing so daily, and yes, I mean daily.
Pick a time you’ll stick to– maybe a on a commute, maybe first thing when you wake up, when you think your brain is not really functioning (that state is a gift to the writer), maybe even when you’re on the toilet (it seems socially acceptable now to take your phone in the bathroom without explanation).
You really only need 5 minutes. But you might find you want to put more and more time into it as you see how your mind can magically KEEP CREATING MORE, how there are more and more stories floating just under your radar.
(I’ll just be blunt and unpopular: the free-writing process is not unlike pooping! No matter how many times you’ve done it before, each new day stuff you didn’t even know you had in there comes out. So unclench the sphincter of your resistance and get on with it!)
Steps for Free-writing
- Set a timer for 5 minutes or more, depending how much time you will allot–decide in advance.
- Promise yourself you will not stop writing until the timer goes off even if you end up writing the alphabet or “blah blah blah.”
- Ensure you will not be interrupted; being in a quiet place is great but not necessary.
- Start your timer; begin writing. Do not lift up your pen or take your fingers off the keys until you are done; do not take more than about three seconds between words (hence writing Blah blah blah if you must!).
- If you have no idea where to start, that’s fine; start with “I have no idea where to start” or write what you are looking at that moment or spend one minute watching your thoughts and start by transcribing what floats by in your head.
- Write whatever comes up; let your writing go wherever your mind goes, no matter how random or tangential or shocking it seems. You are taking dictation.
- Do not edit, cross out, or revise in any way…until later.
- When your timer goes off, stop writing (you may finish a sentence, thought or idea– and, of course, if you’re in the middle of something brilliant, something you know in your gut is worthy of continuing, DO NOT STOP WRITING UNLESS YOU ARE ABOUT TO BE EATEN BY A RABID SPERM WHALE).
- Reread what you have written slowly and carefully, but still without judging (it would be shocking if most of it wasn’t crap. That’s not the point. Gems spend most of their lives in dirt).
- Underline salient parts, sentences, or phrases that seem important or beautiful; these are parts of your free-writing that have something to them, or about which you have more questions to pursue.
After you finish your free-writing session
Take a minute to congratulate yourself on creative resistance and building your college essay personal narrative ouvre.
Label your work, including, at very least, a date, the time you spent, and the prompt if you are using one!
Then, just leave it alone OR reflect on what you wrote down (i.e. just write more about what you said!).
If you have time and inclination, continue free-writing (repeat steps 1-10) using as your first line some part you underlined in the original. This should be writing you feel is most loaded, intriguing, unexpected, revelatory– or a detail that leads you somewhere new.
The next day, EITHER start again (a fresh free-write), steps 1-10 or start with the most compelling line of your last free-write.
The perks of free-writing
Think about it–if you do this even, say, most of the days of each month, by two-plus months from your first free-write you’ll have at least 60 samples of your own writing and mind to look back over and choose from. Your skill at personal reflection will have strengthened considerably almost without you trying.
You’ll be almost accidentally developing a personal writing style. What kinds of things do you notice? What habits of mind reoccur? Are there themes that keep coming up as if hiccoughs from your unconscious? People and events that stick with you?
Write down patterns you see, as you study yourself (it’s not really narcissism– more like learning who you are!). This is equivalent to annotating your own thinking and turning yourself into a character (two things that should happen in your college essay).
And for the free-writing junkie, some extras
- Have a free-writing buddy– someone you trust, to exchange material, get and give feedback. Interview each other, ask questions.
- Have a special free-writing journal or folder if you are working on a computer. You will build your collection quickly. Keep it in a designated place.
- Try out prompts from our site or from many other creative geniuses who generously publish questions to get your writing flowing.
- See all of life as your material! When crappy or undesirable things happen, use them as free-writing prompts rather than as reasons to feel down.
Outcomes of your free-writing
We are always happy to read your free-writes. Please send us writing that seems to have stumbled onto something true or risky! We’ll give you guidance or suggestions how to develop this content further–into a compelling college essay.
By the time you “actually” start your college essay, you’ll have so much material to look through and pick from that you’ll laugh with glee, or at least feel pretty proud of your preparation. Your voice will be established, you’ll have an array of topics to pick from, and a clear sense of your own thinking and feeling patterns. DANG.
Please share your successes, celebrate your failures, be a generous reader for others– and keep writing and jumping into the refreshing cold water.