F-R-E-E-Writing Tutorial: Fast, Raw, Exact, Easy

Freewriting is a very simple writing exercise.

By Orna Ross | Posted 5/8/10 | Updated 5/22/24

F-R-E-E-Writing is very simple. Its basic requirement is that you write as fast as you can, either randomly or on a specific topic. You write the first thoughts that come to your head.

By writing fast, faster than your conscious, willed thoughts, you leave yourself open. You allow the words to rise spontaneously within you, to come and place themselves on the page without interference.

F-R-E-E stands for:

  • Fast
  • Raw &
  • Exact-but-Easy

F-R-E-E-Writing does not aim to be linear or logical, it does not aim for anything — other than to be done.

Each F-R-E-E-Writing session is a new journey without a map, in which you just write whatever it is you have to say at that moment in time.

When we allow words to be written in this way, they have tremendous energy. They embrace your whole self and your whole life in the moment of writing.

They recognise that you, your self and your life, changes from moment to moment, that the next time you write, you-in-your-life will be different.

F = Fast

You write as fast as you can while remaining legible. Keep your hand moving: once you begin writing, you don't stop until you have completed the time or page space you have allocated to the exercise. You don't pause to reread what you've just written, because that leads to stalling and attempting to control or refine your first thoughts.

At first your wrist or hand may be sore but don't worry about that — just keep going. Your muscles will adjust in a few days. Write as fast as you can until you have completed the allocated time or pages.

Let the words flow. Lose control. Be F-R-E-E-

R = Raw

Writing raw has two meanings. On one hand, because you are writing as fast as you can with the aim of unleashing your unconscious mind, you can forget all about spelling, punctuation etc. This writing is for you; when you read it back you will know what you mean: so forget everything your English teachers ever told you and write as raw as you like. Pay no attention to style or expression, just write the thoughts that arise in your own, everyday language.

Don't cross out or correct or try to edit anything, either as you write or once it is written. Even if you write something you didn't mean to write, leave it stand.

The second meaning of writing raw is to resist any urge to self-censor. From time to time, you will find thoughts rise in you that you don't want to write, thoughts that feel frightening or silly or disgusting or pathetic. Thoughts you don't want anybody else to know you ever had. Let them come, raw as they are. Get them out of you. The words you least feel like writing are often those that are most significant. Don't think, just write.

"First thoughts have tremendous energy," says Natalie Goldberg in her great book, Writing Down The Bones. "It is the way the mind first flashes on something. The internal censor usually squelches them, so we generally live in the realm of second and third thoughts, thoughts on thoughts, twice and three times removed from the direct connection of the first, fresh flash…

"First thoughts are also unencumbered by ego, by that mechanism in us that tries to be in control, tries to prove the world is permanent and solid, enduring and logical. The world is not permanent, is ever changing and full of human suffering. So if you express something egoless, it is also full of energy because it is expressing the truth of the way things are."

Those beginning F-R-E-E-Writing are sometimes confronted with great emotions and energy that feels overwhelming. The temptation at that point can be to stop writing, to throw down the pen, to get up from the notebook and walk away. By writing on despite the tears or confusions, by refusing to be thrown off by emotion, we go through to the truth.

Let the words flow. Lose control. Be F-R-E-E-

E-E = Exact-but-Easy

What we mean by "exact" is that you should be precise about detail as you write. Not "some fruit" but "a bunch of green grapes". Not "a man" but "a 35-year-old bricklayer"; not "She sat at her desk, looking sad," but "She leaned over her desk, the book she had stopped reading discarded, her arms crossed, her head low." Take the time and the extra few words it takes to be specific.

This is also a matter of using the original detail of your own life. Nothing links us to our own lives better than writing down the real and precise details of how things actually are for us: the sights and smells, the tastes and feelings. Everyone's life is at once both ordinary and extraordinary, trivial and important. The trivial detail is always worthy of record: through it, somehow, we sense our own significance.

The challenge is to keep the writing exact-but-easy, specific and precise without stopping to chew our pen over details or slowing down. This sounds contradictory but in fact is much easier in practice than it sounds. Once you give yourself the instruction in advance of your writing session, you find it happens automatically. Don't chastise yourself as you write for getting it "wrong": if you write something vague like "flower" and notice it, just put the name of the flower — "a rose" — beside "flower". Be gentle with yourself.

And if you do find yourself in a situation where you have to choose between speed or detail, choose speed: writing fast is the first requirement of F-R-E-E-Writing. Take a moment, before you begin a session each time, to instruct yourself to write concrete and specific details. We all have the habit of thinking and writing in abstractions, but lived detail is what we're after in our F-R-E-E-Writing.

Let the words flow. Lose control. Be F-R-E-E.

Your First F-R-E-E-Writing Session

WritingNow let's try the method. Wherever you are reading this, stop. Go and get yourself a pen and an A4 size (21 X 29.7cm) notebook. (Small notebooks can lead to small thoughts!).

Sit then, in stillness and quiet, with your pen and notebook before you. For the first two minutes, sit with silence, letting your breathing become progressively slower and deeper. Let your thoughts rest, waiting to begin this new activity.

At the end of the two minutes, take up your pen and begin to write. Whatever form the words take, let them arrive without your direction. Do not reject or censor anything. Neither is there any need to affirm anything you write. Just let it come, without judgement. Do not welcome any thought or image because it is optimistic, or encouraging or "positive" in any way. Similarly, no thought or image should be rejected because it is too "negative" or because it points toward difficulties that may lie ahead. Accept what comes.

Please do not content yourself with thinking about what you would write if you did the exercises. Thinking about the content of what you would write is vastly different from actually writing it, particularly from F-R-E-E-Writing it. To get the benefits of this tutorial, you must do the writing.

So please do not proceed until you have done three pages of F-R-E-E-Writing.

That's it. You've done your first FREE-Writing session. How did it feel? Were you surprised by anything that emerged? Did it feel strange?

Take a few moments to record your responses. Did you manage to burn through to first thoughts, to where the mind feels and sees, rather than thinks? Perhaps not. Often it takes a few sessions before we feel fully comfortable with the method and some of us (especially those who had good English teachers in school) may find it difficult to let go on the page. We learned too well how to censor ourselves, how to tidy things up so they were nice and neat (and unoriginal and boring).

Try not to judge your writing as good or bad. In F-R-E-E-Writing terms, writing that is "good" is simply writing that is honest and open but we don't — can't — always produce such words. Sometimes we can write what seems like garbage for days and, then, like a flower from compost, something significant emerges.

But we don't work for that. We work only to do it. We know that the process of doing it, and the regular practice (in the sense that Buddhists speak of practice) is what counts.

So if you are in any way unhappy with what you produced today, in your first F-R-E-E-Writing session, forget about it. It doesn't matter.

All that matters is that you did it.

And that you will F-R-E-E-Write again tomorrow.

Next: Note to Beginner Writers: Learn to Love Writing

Copyright ©2009 Orna Ross. All rights reserved.

Orna RossOrna Ross is an Irish novelist and creative nonfiction writer. She has taught creative principles, writing and freewriting to many disparate groups.