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Freewriting: How To Save Your College Essay

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Blurred hands moving really quickly over a computer keyboard.

Are you stuck on your college essay draft? Or don’t even know where to start? Are you sure that you have nothing of interest to say? Bogged down by wordiness and obfuscations? Or are you trying to write too many essays at once?

Freewriting has the cure for what ails you. Here’s why and how to do it, and some prompts to get you started.

First, freewriting is cherished by almost all writers as one of the best (and tried and true) ways to become unstuck and make discoveries, and also to force yourself to JUST WRITE SOMETHING. It doesn’t have to be good, like, at all.

The 7 benefits of freewriting

  1. You counteract anxiety that comes from procrastination and a blank page.
  2. You inevitably discover something.
  3. You become intimate with your own thinking.
  4. You’ll likely crash into a least one latent “best” idea!
  5. You create spontaneous, interesting connections between threads of thought.
  6. You are not not writing (see No. 1).
  7. You tend not to BS or overinflate.

Some common side effects of freewriting:

You might start to really like writing and want to not stop doing it.

You may become evangelical about the value of freewriting.

You may produce an essay or many, even against your will.

If you get in the habit of free-writing now you will:

  1. Have more material than you can possibly use for one application essay, and then some. That is good because your average student has tons of supplemental essays to write, too.
  2. Discover things about yourself – always a plus.
  3. Discover unusual topics, ideas and connections between events in your life.
  4. Have a technique to fall back on any time you get stuck in writing, which may happen a zillion times over your lifetime.

Not yet sold? Try this: the most original and best ideas for many of my students college essays have emerged or become clear when they are in a nonjudgmental and exploratory space. This is what freewriting opens up.

These things alone are more valuable to you over a lifetime of having to write stuff (and live with yourself) than even the most knock-out college essay!

What is free-writing, 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.

You use free-writing to combat “writer’s block,” fear of a bad essay or thinking you have nothing to say (a common claim which is always wrong. Flannery O’Connor said if you make it through childhood you have enough material to write from for the rest of your life.)

When you free-write, you just write. And your critic has to shut up.

Free-writing is a technique not an absence of technique. What it is missing is that mean inner critic who won’t let you say a word without jumping down your throat or snapping your pen in half.

Some freewriting guidelines and inspiration

Pick a time you’ll stick to – maybe a on a commute, maybe first thing when you wake up, even if you think your brain is not really functioning (that state is a gift to the writer). If you have to, you can even freewrite while you’re on the toilet (it seems socially acceptable now to take your phone in the bathroom without explanation).

You really only need three minutes, minimum. But you might find you want to spend more time as you see how your mind can magically KEEP COMING UP WITH STUFF. There are always stories, insights, memories and valuable observations floating just under your radar.

Trust the process. I have been freewriting my whole life as a writer, and almost all my students do it at some point. No matter how many times you’ve freewritten before, each new day stuff you didn’t even know you had in there comes out. How is that for fabulous?

The 10 steps for free-writing

  1. Try to be in a place where you will not be interrupted. Many a great piece of writing has begun behind a locked bathroom door.
  2. Set a timer for three minutes or more. Decide in advance your minimum minutes, and you can always keep going.
  3. Vow (to yourself, to some deity, to an accountable friend) that you will not stop writing until the timer goes off even if you end up writing the alphabet or “blah blah blah.”
  4. Start your timer; IMMEDIATELY begin writing. Do not lift up your pen or take your fingers off the keys until you are done (you can use a voice recorder, too, and freevoice!). Do not take more than about three seconds between words! You’re not looking for the perfect word, rather you’re looking to be in the perfect FLOW of WHATEVER YOUR MIND COMES UP WITH.
  5. 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.
  6. Continue the whole time, writing 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.
  7. Do not edit, cross out, or revise in any way…until later.
  8. When your timer rings, 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.
  9. 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.)
  10. 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. Return to each sentence that had some gem or was interesting to you in any way. Elaborate.

Get started

Here are the best freewriting prompts that help my students find interesting and useful material –- set a timer for three minutes minimum and don’t cheat!

  1. What is something you are carrying that no one can see (literal/concrete or metaphorical/abstract)?
  2. Tell me the secret history of one or more important objects in your house.
  3. What is a time you did not live up to expectations? Whose expectations and what happened?

I guarantee if you do this from the college essay prompts or without any prompt at all, you will start to see themes, obsessions, and observations that matter to you. You will learn about yourself, your mind, your material. And most of all, you’ll have some writing to review in order to produce – or help revise – a college essay.

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