Exercises and Tools #2: Just Write What You Know

Peter Elbow (1981) called it “freewriting”. Peter Boice (1990) talked about “spontaneous writing” and “generative writing”. Ulrike Scheuermann (2012) talks about “thought sprint”, “focus sprint”, and other writing exercises. Regardless of the different terminology, the exercises allow us to just write what comes to mind. No matter how silly, stylistically bad, or useless a draft, these writing forms demand that we let go of our usual constraints. So, goodbye inner censor, at least for the time being.

The task is simple: write whatever comes to your mind for five or ten minutes – as freewriting. Or choose a topic and write about that – as generative writing or the focus sprint. In both cases, write without stopping, even if you write, “I don’t know what else to write”. Don’t stop moving your pen or your fingers on the keyboard. You don’t have to rush though, just keep writing. The thoughts will follow. At worst, after five minutes you will have one or two pages of useless text in front of you. At best, you will have used writing to think about something and found out that you know more than you thought – or that you have new ideas that emerged while writing.

But don’t worry: nobody needs to read your text. This is a writing exercise for you alone. Even if you do it in a workshop, where everybody writes for five minutes, you usually don’t have to share the results. But you might want to share your experiences about doing the exercise.

Instead of doing the same standard exercise of simply writing about anything or a specific topic, you can vary it. Scheuermann (2012) presents different forms of this exercise. In each of the exercises, however, you are asked to mark the most important sentences you wrote and a key sentence at the bottom of the page. For one of the variations, “writing relay“, you use the key sentence of the first focus sprint to write another one. And then again, you use the second key sentence to write a third text. Alternatively, you use the same topic for several focus sprint versions. This is a way to explore a topic more deeply.

Now you might wonder, what are these exercises for? They can be helpful for exploring a topic you don’t yet know much about. You write down everything you know – regardless of grammar, punctuation, or sentence fragments. Alternatively, these exercises might help you when you’re stuck with a text. If you can’t begin or continue writing, take five minutes to write about why you can’t begin or continue. The exercise might inspire you or start your writing mind.

Whatever you write about in these exercises, consider writing to be a tool to think. Allow yourself to think in a written form, instead of trying to keep all your thoughts to yourself until they are in their proper places and perfectly phrased.

Next week, I will talk about clustering, mind-mapping and similar tools.

Boice, Robert (1990): Professors as Writers. A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing. Stillwater: New Forums Press Inc.
Elbow, Peter (1981): Writing with Power. Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. New York/ Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Scheuermann, Ulrike (2012): Schreibdenken. Schreiben als Denk- und Lernwerkzeug nutzen und vermitteln. Opladen/Toronto: Verlag Barbara Budrich.


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