Students have all through their school years been subjected to the endless corrections by their enthusiastic teachers, who often harp on their mistakes, blunders and other minor slips and admonish them for their “bad writing” in general. On the other hand, students take the corrections to heart and think they and not their mistakes are being judged. Thus, teachers inadvertently do considerable damage to the writing process of students, who consequently end up being reluctant to put anything down on paper. In this study, I will look at how teachers can introduce students to the realm of free writing from a new perspective, and encourage them to write with confidence and ease, thereby redeeming themselves from the mistakes committed in the past.
Look at the following extract on “Free writing” taken from Writing without teachers:
The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don’t stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. If you can’t think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write “I can’t think what to say, I can’t think what to say” as many times as you want; or just repeat the last word you wrote over and over again; or anything else. The requirement is that you never stop. (Elbow, 1983)
What impressed the students in my class about “free writing” is the concept of writing without any editing during the writing process. This notion was acceptable because students naturally tend to edit and re-edit their thoughts, words, and construction of sentences, and eventually end up not writing. On the contrary, when an activity of free writing was first introduced by this teacher-researcher, the students were excited and they cooperated wholeheartedly by writing freely and continuously.
What do Advocates of Free Writing say?
A sensational point for students regarding free writing is, to put it in the words of Elbow, “The goal of free writing is in the process, not the product” (1998). The practice of free writing has been widely used for decades by teachers and academicians alike. Creative writing teachers believe that allocating ten minutes every day for free writing would help writers get over their writer’s block. Composition classes have been indulging in free writing extensively for generations. It has also been a part of journal writing and diary writing. Educators have experimented free writing in the academic setting and proved that it would enhance critical thinking:
Free writing is a means of teaching freshmen critical thinking skills, as well as getting them to write at all. There is also evidence to support the concept that despite the haphazard ideas seen in student's free writings, that there are underlying organizational aspects to these writings, which if the student were to analyse fully, would discover that in the midst of their ramblings and/or venting of emotions, lies a focused idea that could be developed and expanded to aid in the production of academic papers. (Major, 1994)
Thus, it is a convincing fact that free writing can bring out students’ voices and help them to respect their thinking process. Though there are claims that free writing encourages critical thinking, Rule (2013) writes about the students’ difficulties in thinking during free writing. According to her, it is the teacher’s interference that makes the students to think differently. Kenneth Macrorie (1991) points to “Engfish” (“academicism”) that is, the artificial way students write academic English and advocates free writing as an antidote and guides students to “forget for the moment, grammar, spelling, and punctuation . . .” Reynolds (1988) also argues that free writing helps to put initial thoughts on paper and it is a low-stress exercise that helps apprehensive writers to overcome their writer’s block.
Dickson (2001) illustrates that the two types of free writing used in the classroom are unfocussed free writing and focussed free writing. In “unfocussed free writing” one can write about anything one likes, while “focussed free writing” involves writing on a topic with the help of hints and prompts.
Activities Conducted in the Classroom
Free writing activities were conducted in the English classes of two first-year engineering batches in the first semester. The college, affiliated to Anna University, Chennai, Tamil Nadu (India), offers Technical English I and Technical English II in the first year. The free-writing exercises were planned to be run alongside the topics contained in the respective syllabus. A few activities have been explicated here to enable students to learn the art of free writing:
Activity 1: Free writing on an incident
This activity required more than the usual English period. In the first period, as a pre-writing task, the students were introduced to extracts from autobiographies, such as The Story of my Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi, Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) by Adolf Hitler, Autobiographical Notes by Albert Einstein and Wings of Fire by Abdul Kalam. In the next period, the teacher narrated an autobiographical incident from her life. (Note: The incident should be one that can be divulged to the students). The teacher asked the students to choose an incident from their lives, and then make a list of the events that occurred when that incident took place. She also provided them with sufficient hints on how to develop the incident and gave them 20 minutes to write it down.
Activity 2: Free writing addressed to the universe
This activity involved encouraging students to write a personal letter to the universe for 10 minutes. As guidelines, a few prompts were given in the form of existential queries: “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, “Why should I go through all this?”, etc. They were also requested to write to the universe about their aspirations, and make a plea for their secret desires.
Activity 3: Free writing on the film, Forrest Gump
In this case, there was a pre-writing activity for the students. They were shown the Academy Award winning movie, Forest Gump for two periods of 50 minutes each. Due to time constraints, the viewing of the rest of the movie was given as homework. Fifteen minutes of the third period was allotted to discussing the plot of the movie. Prior to the writing activity, the teacher instructed the students as follows: Write an informal movie review. Write whatever you think fit about the movie. Just pen down what you feel like. Comment on the actors, acting, direction, cinematography and theme. Take only 20 minutes for the writing. To conclude, write as much as you want, as fast as you can. Be cool and do not rush. Do not read what you have written but keep on writing; and above all, forget about your grammar, spelling and punctuation.
This was enough motivation for the students. There was pin drop silence in the class as they engrossed themselves in writing for 20 minutes, turning out between 500 and 1000 words.
Activity 4: Free writing on a debatable topic
The students were given a prewriting exercise to surf the Net <idebate.org> for the topic, “Should children below 18 use mobile phones?” They were given 15 minutes to write for or against the topic.
Activity 5: Free writing for a diary
The teacher introduced the students to diary-writing, a desirable free-writing experience. The students were then asked to write a diary of the previous day for 10 minutes.
Activity 6: Free writing on the art of “Free Writing”
In this activity, the students had to write on free writing for 5 minutes to find out whether they had successfully understood this art. The teacher gave the following prompt, “Did you enjoy the process of free writing? Comment on what you feel about it.”
As a teacher, I used to find considerable resistance to writing from students whenever a writing exercise was introduced. They usually sat with a finger below the chin, their heads tilted upwards, and a blank page in front of them. Contrary to this experience, the students responded favourably to the first free-writing activity, “Free writing on an incident.” This gave the teacher an impetus for more such activities. The result was commendable.
Prior to the first and second activities, “Free writing on an incident” and “Free writing addressed to the universe,” the students were informed that they were writing only for themselves. Thus, their confidence levels were boosted right at the outset. Naturally, they took up the exercise as a private affair with paper and became engrossed in writing. This was in keeping with Southwell’s advice to the teacher not to collect the scripts of free writing (1977). The teacher collected the scripts of the remaining activities.
For the third activity, “Free writing on the film, Forrest Gump,” most of the students wrote continuously for 20 minutes. Some of them wrote almost perfect movie reviews with an introduction, summary and conclusion and with scarcely any grammatical mistakes as though they had been trained to write. On the other hand, many wrote just a lengthy summary, in order to utilize the 20 minutes given. Though disillusioned with the summary initially, the teacher felt gratified on realizing that summary writing is also a part of academic writing. If the students could convert a 2-hour movie to 20 minutes of writing, it was a remarkable activity which would be useful to them in the future in preparing summaries of research articles, reports of events, etc. One of the students wrote: “Should I write the story of the movie, now? Yes? So, Forrest Gump lives . . .” After writing a brief account she added, “I'm going to shorten things up for want of time.” In display of critical thinking another student wrote:
When Forrest is bullied by his school mates, Jenny says “Run, Forrest, run” -- probably the only meaningful line she says to Forrest in this story. And then he does run, as he discovers that his legs have perfectly repaired themselves. Although it is not mentioned here if that was Jenny’s doing (That is, it is her love for him that fixed his legs, aka Bollywood logic).
Some writings revealed the wandering minds of the students. For example,
I just remembered that there is cricket match going on. It is India against New Zealand. Just 10 minutes I have been writing and just heard the half time whistle. Boom! What do you know, from Gump to Boom, that’s my weird mind? Ok now, I'll tell more about Gump.
In the fourth activity, “Free writing on a debatable topic,” most of the students felt the topic chosen was too hackneyed, but the teacher did not want the students to run out of ideas, she wanted them to concentrate on the process of writing continuously. It was heartening to note that students were speaking up on paper. To give an example, one student wrote, "Personally, I share a love-hate relationship with my phone. . . . The ideal child of this century thrives through the internet. A mobile phone provides access to all these.” Some of them wrote very logically in an essay format with an introduction, a main body with the advantages and disadvantages of the mobile phones, and the conclusion.
The fifth activity, “Free writing for a diary,” was an eye-opener for the teacher who got an insight into the students’ anxieties and frustrations expressed in their writing. It was like reading about a day in the lives of engineering students, with their endless tests, unit tests, record writing and hectic lectures. It is no exaggeration to say that this activity had a therapeutic effect on the students.
The sixth activity, “Free writing on Free Writing,” was an exercise to enable students to give vent to their experience of free writing. It was indirectly a feedback on free writing.
Extracts From Students’ Feedback on the Sixth Activity
The feedback had varying responses of which a few extracts have been edited and given as follows. One of the students started his account on free writing thus:
I like free writing. It’s a nice experience because I don’t have to write grammatically. I need [sic] write only what I know. I write a lot and I make a lot of grammar [sic] mistakes. As I need not read what I have written, I won’t see those mistakes. So I’m happy.
The same student added, “Free writing is very easy writing. It is like water falling from the mountains. So it is nice.” Another student saluted the thinking process in free writing: “This skill is not only used by writers but also by many orators.” Yet another wrote:
Free writing is like meditation. I found all the connections to the outer world disconnected and I found new connections within me. Now I think I should follow free writing . . . New neuron connections are made in our brain. It’s like connecting dots. New ideas come fast like a bulb to my head. That’s an amazing feeling.
Many others also testified in favour of free writing:
Free writing is a useful tool to build the thought process. It is simple to learn. It might seem challenging to write, at first, but the longer one writes, the easier it gets. The biggest advantage this gives is that once the pen starts moving across the paper freely, true thoughts emerge. No time is taken to think or process the writing. So the end product is one hundred percent honest emotions.
Many students, apprehensive of grammar, showed a feeling of relief when they were told, “to forget about grammar while writing.” Here is an extract:
I like forgetting grammar for a change because making grammatical errors is considered bad. Everywhere, even on Facebook, there are those “grammar Nazis” waiting to correct grammar and spellings. Now that we are allowed to make such mistakes in free writing, and that too at the college level, it is simply great.
Many students appreciated the informal part of free writing: “All through school we were taught to write in a formal way. Well, where is the fun in that? The true emotions of persons [sic] are expressed in a better way when they are informal.”
One student expressed a personal difficulty: “I had some vocabulary problem while I was writing. I was stuck at some places and was not able to write continuously.” For such students, Stover says, free writing is an excellent tool to ease the writer’s block and put down their ideas on paper. It is a way to begin writing essays in which the process starts with free writing, rewriting, editing and then the finished work (Stover, 1988). One or two students however, were not serious about the feedback: “I am pretending to write about free writing. The teacher is supervising whether we are writing. Even though I am not writing about free writing, I am writing freely.”
A few students were vehement in expressing their dislike for free writing. Here is one such comment: “One’s intelligence is not incorporated by any means in free writing. Simply writing something on a piece of paper for 10 or 20 minutes without considering the mistakes, is that going to yield any good results?” Another negative comment on free writing was:
Free writing, as I had experienced isn’t such a recommended concept of sharing our views and thoughts. I find it a tad inane to rush into words without setting our thoughts in an arrayed format . . . When there is an acclaimed topic to be written about, and when the writer wants to convey his ideas, and accentuate in detail the points of the topic, this style of writing is definitely a setback to his calibre.
Yet another student was bold enough to write: “I hate free writing . . . this is like detention for me. Are you doing this just to mess with us?”
Whatever the tone of the comments, the teacher-researcher vouches that free writing was a new experience for them because during all the activities the students utilized the allotted time to write continuously. It is true that in certain situations, the teacher had to motivate the students to write. This was done in order to make them experience the delight of giving vent to their thoughts and feelings. A student wrote: “I am thankful to my English teacher for initiating me into free writing. This kind of writing is new to me.” Another comment said: “Free writing is one of the many things I never knew existed before I joined college. It has been a good experience.”
Free writing is a fantastic method of putting ideas down on paper. It is a liberating experience. It is excellent as a pre-writing exercise. When practised on its own, free writing is a wonderful experience as it enables a person to release pent up thoughts and feelings. It is also commonly used for the purpose of first drafts. The negative comments on free writing resulted from the fact that the students misunderstood free writing as the language of the final draft. May be if the teacher had been more vocal about explaining this and had emphasized that free writing is meant to be the first draft of any writing, the misunderstanding would not have crept in.
Though the teacher informed the students that they had to write ignoring grammar and spelling, and to not read what they had written, the teacher-researcher noticed that students kept editing what they had written. In fact, they were re-reading what they had written, and did some perfect editing process in their minds before penning down what they wanted to.
To summarize, it needs to be reiterated that the teacher-researcher conducted six activities to introduce free writing to college students. At the outset, the students were informed that they need not submit the scripts of the first two activities. However, the scripts of the rest of the activities were collected. The last activity was an indirect feedback on the experience of free writing for the students. The majority of them expressed delight at their new experience of free writing. Obviously, there were a few adverse comments too. On the whole, they were of the opinion that free writing helped them to think fast and critically, increase their speed of writing, and put their thoughts on paper easily. As already stated, free writing celebrates the process of writing and not the end product (Elbow, 1998). Needless to say, students found this new approach to writing beneficial and liberating.
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Divya John is presently Assistant Professor, Department of English, SSN College of Engineering, Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Apart from research and awards in the field of language teaching, she has several poetry publications to her credit.