How to Become an Idea-Generating Machine Part 1: Free Writing

How would you like to generate more and better ideas virtually at will? What would that do for your clients and, of course, your freelance business?

In this article, I want to examine an effective tool that will allow you to become an idea-generating machine: free writing.

You have likely heard of free association. In psychoanalysis, it is used to help a patient move past the critical mind as quickly as possible and get to the issue at hand.

Sound familiar? We all have at least one – some of us more than one – voice, which begins its dialogue the moment we sit down to write and tries to demolish our confidence by telling us we can’t do it. Getting past that critical voice is key to our creativity and therefore vital to our productivity! If this describes your struggle, then free writing might just be your answer.

The term free writing doesn't mean that it is a free-for-all. Much like mind mapping (which I discuss in Part 2), free writing is organized broadly around ONE subject. What is that one subject? That is determined by whatever project for which you are attempting to generate ideas.

For example, when I am tasked with writing a speech, the subject will be given to me by the client. After my initial interview with them, I will free write about the theme of their upcoming talk. Free writing is like free association but on paper. It works almost like magic.

Here are several strategies that will help you make effective use of this tool:

1. Find a good place to start.

When doing a free-writing exercise, type or write the topic at the top of the page so you can stay focused on that one key idea. That’s your starting place, the beginning of your journey as you explore all that you know about the topic.

Free writing is a lot like taking the back roads instead of the freeway when you are on vacation. It’s all about seeing the countryside, experiencing every part of the culture, and enjoying sights you have never seen before. It's the same with free writing. You're exploring all that you know and finding out what you don't know. You tap into resources of the mind that you have never before experienced.

2. Time it.

Most writers hate deadlines, but most of us are better at writing against them! Personally, I like to write in 10-minute bursts. I set a timer on my phone and write continuously for the next 10 minutes. I don't go back and correct grammar, misspellings, or improper sentence syntax. I just keep writing.

When my time is up, I go back and review what was just written. I examine it to see if there are any viable ideas that I should expand upon in my next writing session.

This process could go on for a couple of hours, depending on what kind of project it is. When I’m done, I have ample material to create a writing outline for my project and often the raw (and not so raw!) material to fill it in.

Why is this so effective? In short, due to Parkinson’s Law, named after Cyril Parkinson. It states, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” That’s true, isn’t it? When the human mind is up against the wall, it's amazing what it can accomplish.

3. Don’t go backwards.

Here’s what I mean. Don’t go back and correct grammar, spelling, syntax, or style while you are writing. Keep going. Don’t stop. Editing and creating use two different sides of the brain, so don’t create additional stress for yourself by trying to “fix as you go.” Let it flow – you can fix it later. Remember the axiom that all good writing is rewriting!

4. Give up being perfect.

Nothing will stop the flow of free writing like perfection. Good is good enough when it comes to the practice of Free Writing. The point is don’t try to get it perfect; just get it down. You can always edit it later.

5. Frame the free-writing findings.

Take what you have written and review it, reframe it, then rewrite it into something valuable. What I often find when I've done several free-writing sessions is a sort of organized chaos. From there, I reorganize it enough that I can rewrite it into something coherent and usable.

What do you do with all the material you don’t use? Save it! You never know when it can be used later for another project. Whatever you do, don't discard what you've written.

Free writing is like mining for diamonds. You have to move a lot of dirt to find the gem. And once you do, it still has to be taken to the gemologist to be cut.

Approach free writing the same way. Move the dirt, find that “gem” of an idea, and then edit it until it becomes spectacular.

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Published: April 16, 2012

3 Responses to “How to Become an Idea-Generating Machine – Part 1: Free Writing”

  1. I can write for hours and hours and days and days on various subjects such as those found on news websites where there's comment boards, but my problem comes in conceptualizing the idea that anyone would actually pay me to do it. I like to read, some people have told me that they like my writing, but how do you make the magic connection with some kind of paycheck?

    Guest (Bert)

  2. This is a great article. One of the most helpful I've read. I can tell Bob used the free-writing method to write this article because it's full of insight that only comes by following this method. Thanks Bob. Great writing. I'm using this method on a current project and it's working almost like magic, just as you promised.


  3. I see this article in the same light as the 'Morning Pages' advocated by Julia Cameron. I have been writing at least 750 words every single day for a little more than half a month. It has significantly improved my writing, and my expression takes on a flow that was unmatched in my earlier writings.

    Free writing is a most wonderful tool, and this article reminds me of important aspects.


    Guest (Karan Kamble)

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