Students (and their parents) often ask me how they can best improve their writing – and how to do it quickly. So, here’s an overview of free writing. It is by far my favourite way of improving creative and transactional writing, simply because it’s so relaxed.
Creative Writing and Growth Mindset.
On my writing bookshelf, yes I have a bookshelf dedicated to books about writing, there is a book by Joe Moran called First You Write a Sentence. It is stellar advice for writers, irrespective of their age or ability.
I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve said that ‘writing/English is a skill that you develop; it is not something that you get right or wrong’. That sentence is something that I tell my students all the time, but especially when they get their essays back. It’s genuinely what I think and believe to be true.
I also think it’s vital to see English as a subject where you are constantly making these little changes and little improvements. ‘Growth mindset‘ is a concept that is obviously very familiar to those I teach in school: I’ve lost count of the number of times this term that my year 10 class have criticised the Birling family in An Inspector Calls because of their fixed mindsets.
So what if ‘growth mindset’ is a term that students and teachers are familiar with? How does it apply specifically to English, and to free writing in particular? The answer is simple: free-writing allows students to make mistakes. It encourages getting pen to paper and formulating ideas in words. Students (and teachers and aspiring writers) get the opportunity to make mistakes in their writing in a low-stakes environment. This, in turn, hopefully reduces the anxiety around making mistakes in the first place. Eventually, when it comes to the high-stakes testing that the education system seems to be so fond of, the students have had so much practice at putting pen to paper, that they have the skills they need to do well.
But this growth mindset is not something that is exclusively used in the classroom, in fact it spills over into the kind of skills that students need when they’re moving into the world of work. Irrespective whether or not it’s utilised in writing tasks, it’s important in the feedback cycle that employees are also subjected to.
Essentially, it is allowing yourself to write on a given topic and not worry about planning, structure, or any particular rules of SPaG.
I can imagine some people would have kittens just at the thought!
But it’s not an exercise in proof reading or planning. Instead, it’s an exercise in training your brain to actually write. You only get better at writing with practice, and what puts a lot of people off is (not) knowing how to write in the first place. By parking these worries and just jotting down your inner monologue, you get to practice and play around with how to articulate your ideas.
It’s important to remember that you can’t edit a blank page, and so First You Write a Sentence.
This is quite easy to find topics for. All you have to do is look out of the window and there you are: inspiration!
With creative free writing the most important thing to remember is that there are no rules. You don’t need to describe just one thing; there might be a lot of people that you introduce and then drop. The trick is to not really worry about it. Instead, just write the first thing that comes into your mind.
Sometimes when you look back over what you’ve written it will be total rubbish. Other times there might be a glimmer of gold dust among the ashes and you can salvage that for the next piece.
Free writing is a process. You learn by trying things out and having a go.
I’d prefer to think of this as ‘opinion writing’ rather than ‘non-fiction’. It helps not just for the transactional writing aspect of GCSE English Language exams, but also the questions where you have to evaluate what someone else has said about a text.
The premise is exactly the same as the creative free writing: set yourself a timer and give yourself a topic and go. Write. Don’t stop until the timer runs out and even then, keep going.
Topics for this kind of transactional/non-fiction writing might be a little harder to find. You might have to open up the news to find an article to read to give you something to write about. Or, you could get creative and revise topics from other subjects: ‘What do I think should have happened at the end of WW1?’ for example.
Yes, really, there are FAQs for free writing!
What if I get it wrong?
You literally can’t. That’s why free writing is so brilliant. A notebook and a pen is all you need. You don’t need to show anyone, you don’t even need to tell anyone you’re writing. You just need to try and you’re doing it right.
What if I can't think of what to write about?
Use that! One of the steps of free writing is to get everything onto the page. If that means you have lines of ‘this feels like such a waste of time, I don’t know if I ever will understand this.’ Then that’s okay. Sometimes, these places where we are stuck become the start. You might end up describing your hand cramping up because you’re holding your pen too tightly; there might be a sound that distracts you. These are the beginnings of writing. That’s okay.
Will this really help me in English?
In short, yes. In your GCSE exams you have very little time to read, plan, write, and edit your work. To some degree then even your GCSE exams will contain an element of free-writing (but please leave time to edit in exams!). Practising this will only make you better at it.
I've already got loads of English homework. Why would I want to bother free writing too?
It’s relaxing and cathartic. There’s a lot of stress on students to perform well in schools, as well as all the social pressures students are under. Stick all of the other global pressures that people have faced this year, it’s not easy right now. Free writing gives people the space to articulate themselves. It allows people to put their ideas and thoughts down on paper. There’s no judgement, no comeback, no criticism. Even if it’s just keeping a diary, it’s a wonderful form of self expression.