I have a confession to make: I don’t “practice” writing as much as I should.
And by that I mean I spend most of my practice time doing actual work. Which means I don’t very often write things that aren’t meant for polishing, processing, and publishing. But I should. Everyone should.
There are many different ways to practice writing. Some use the time to work on the first drafts of their novels. Others make it a point to consistently publish blog posts to keep themselves motivated and in a rhythm.
Others are more of the “writing exercise” type. They collect prompts. They do timed writing sessions. They are much more deliberate about separating their work from their preparation.
Despite my avoidance of this (it works for some people, it doesn’t for others), there is one writing exercise that I still use every once in a while when I desperately need to clear my head and get into a writing flow state.
Here’s how it has changed my writing for the better, and how it could change yours.
What is ‘stream of consciousness’ writing? When I first walked into a creative writing class at the age of 15 — I had never taken a creative writing class before that — I did not know what to expect. I figured we would be assigned “homework” to write on our own time, bring what we worked on into class, and get critiques and feedback. I’m sure this is how many creative writing classes are structured. But not mine.
I was very fortunate to have a creative writing instructor who believed in nothing more than challenging and pushing his students to their absolute creative limits. (I miss him so much. And I always will.) He would start class by shouting out a prompt and say “Write until I say stop.” He would play clips from TV shows without the sound and tell us to write our own dialogue. And he made everyone participate. The first time he ever called on me to read out loud what I had just written five seconds ago, I almost forgot how to read.
One of the most valuable exercises he ever thrust upon us was what he called “stream of consciousness” writing — some call it free writing. I call it nonsense writing in some contexts. It forces you to stop caring about writing perfectly. And I would not be the writer I am today without it.
Every instructor structures exercises like this differently, so I can’t tell you the right or wrong or best way to do it. I will, however, tell you how I was taught to do it.
- Choose a writing medium (laptop? Pen and paper? Typewriter?) and a time limit (example: 10 minutes).
- Sit down in front of your utensil(s) of choice and don’t think. Just start writing.
- Write whatever comes into your head. It can be about anything, anyone, any place or idea or thing.
- Once you start writing, you are not allowed to stop until the timer goes off. Do not look at the time or your word or page count. Do not stop to look anything up, do not pause to think about how to spell something or whether or not that last sentence made any sense. Just write.
- At the end of it all you will have in front of you a giant mess of ideas and tangents and fragments of thoughts. There may be nothing to salvage from it. There may be something there. You won’t know until you are finished.
This is by no means an exercise that will work for everyone. It is something that can help, something you can get used to and add to your weekly writing routine, but it’s OK if you don’t want to or can’t do it exactly as I have described above. There are different ways to exercise your creativity as you are writing. Not all of them have to involve writing as much as possible in a timed sitting. It’s an option. But not the only one.
Why are so many writers afraid of going on tangents? Probably for the same reason writers are afraid to do just about anything when creating content: Because it’s uncomfortable, it involves giving up most if not all of your control, and you don’t know whether or not it is going to lead anywhere valuable — and won’t until after the fact.
People — yes, even writers — don’t always love uncertainty or surprises. There are plenty of writers out there who are spontaneous and reckless only within the realms of their own creativity, but there are many who cannot start writing a story if they feel they don’t know exactly how it needs to end. Or begin. Or progress.
If you want to be the best writer you can possibly be, you simply have to let go of your need to know exactly where your story might be going. I do not judge anyone for outlining their work in great detail before they start writing — for some creators, it is the best and only way they can move forward with their work and there is nothing wrong with that by any means.
But you have to be willing to let your story go in a direction that might be different than you originally planned. You have to be more open to different possibilities. The initial way you thought you wanted your story to go might not actually be the best way to tell that story. You have to rely on your instinct to know what to do in this situation. You can’t let your fear stand in your way.
Writing is supposed to be a mess. When I was younger, I had a really hard time writing essays. Late elementary and middle school are both hard enough without having a teacher tell you that you have to use a specific, pre-determined formula to write three pages that make a solid point.
What I struggled with most was feeling like I had to write a perfect first draft. Yes, even then I fought with my internal desire to achieve perfection, though I didn’t realize what that meant or how it was affecting my work. I hated “first drafts.” I just wanted to write the essay once and turn it in without my teacher handing it back to me with corrections and suggestions.
But one of the most important things I learned as a sophomore in an advanced creative writing course was that sometimes you have to write complete nonsense in order to have something to make sense of. This was horrifying to me. I did not understand how it was possible — or why it was necessary — to write “garbage” when I could just spend that time writing something as close to perfect as possible instead.
Here’s the thing about writing though: It is a creative process, one that requires extensive thinking and exertion whether you realize it or not. Sure, you could sit down and try to write something perfectly, and maybe you would end up writing something halfway decent. But you might not end up writing the best story you could have written. There is a way to avoid that — and it’s the art of just letting your story go where it secretly wants to go.
Is it going to be messy? Of course it is. You have no idea what you are doing. Your characters aren’t going to be perfect, you are going to change your mind, you are going to write some things that don’t make sense. This is all an essential part of the creative process. You have to lay out everything that’s in your head before you can organize and improve upon it.
So even if you don’t think you are the kind of writer who can handle messes, there is no better time than now to learn to embrace them. In some ways, writing is like painting. Sort of. Well, I don’t know how you paint, but when I do it, I get paint everywhere, it looks like a war zone in there, but that mess is necessary in order to produce a product of true creativity.
Embrace the mess. It’s not going to be pretty. There is going to be copying and pasting, cutting, rewriting, you are going to realize you don’t care for something as you are writing it but you have to run with it anyway and see where it goes. If you still don’t like it, you have the authority, and the responsibility, to change it later.
This kind of power, this responsibility, can feel overwhelming. I get that. But you have to keep moving forward. I know that might seem like a rather empty piece of advice, but isn’t that what most advice meant to inspire actually is? It means nothing if you don’t take something away from it, go home, and actually do something with it.
Yes, keep moving forward. But how? You sit down with a timer and a blank document or a notebook or whatever device you use to write, or maybe no timer at all, and you just start writing without paying attention to anything but your own thoughts and instinct, and you keep going until you feel you are done.
It is in these moments, during these sessions, that I have felt the closest to whatever you want to call “creative enlightenment.” It just feels like you finally, at least for a brief moment, know what you are doing. And the mistakes and tangents don’t matter. And everything is going to turn out just fine.
Do not fear the unknown. In the unknown, as a storyteller, anything is possible.
And you’re the one who gets to experience it first before anyone else. How cool is that?
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.