As a writer, your constant companion is the blank page. Yet no matter how many times you face it and commit to penetrating its force field, you might still feel your hair blowing back and every fiber of your being resisting the task at hand.
When you’re stuck, I believe the antidote is to write—but not for the project you’re trying unsuccessfully to accomplish. Instead, you need the kind of writing that moves like water downhill. The kind of writing that is trying to accomplish absolutely nothing. Freewriting.
Freewriting is a practice of nonattachment. You write words on a page, for a set period of time, without stopping. The point is to generate without forethought, to move beyond your judging and editing mind, to simply move freely across a page. For the pleasure of it. For the momentum of it. To witness yourself in motion, and to discover the knowing beneath your thinking that pours out of your body when you let it.
I’ve been freewriting for twenty-five years, and I have come to believe that it is the ultimate fitness regimen for a writer. For me, it is the simplest and most reliable way to leapfrog all of the nonsense I put in my way as I try to enter “the zone” of writing. And I think it can serve the same purpose for you.
There is no obstacle in your writing life that two pages of freewriting can’t help you overcome. When you feel afraid, stuck, uncertain, or out of ideas, you can simply put pen to paper. Write about how bored or stuck you are if you need to. Write the same sentence again and again if that’s what comes. Just don’t stop. When you are moving at such a speed that you can’t plan or control what’s happening on the page, your mind and your being tend to relax. When your expectation is to simply record what wants to come through, you will be amazed at how much is waiting at the threshold, ready to pour onto the page.
In fact, freewriting is the most reliable lifeboat I know to help you make the crossing through your most treacherous terrain. It is the bridge that materializes in thin air to take you, rung by rung, from “I don’t know how to even begin,” to “I have a solid momentum and will figure it out along the way.”
Natalie Goldberg suggests a kind of verbal freewriting, in which you simply speak out loud whatever comes to mind. Since writing, by nature, is a kind of holding on, I have always found this exercise to be a great stretch of the writing impulse. When you learn to trust the source of your words and to flex its supply of language and insight, it will learn to trust you. Nothing coming through is too precious to let go. The more you release, the more you receive.
I like to freewrite for ten to twenty minutes every time I sit down to work. Sometimes, if I have a limited amount of time, it’s the only writing I do. But often it serves as my warm-up to set the pace and awaken my energy for a multi-hour writing session.
Once you are ready to move from freewriting to more intentional work, how do you sustain the momentum? Try these strategies for keeping yourself in the zone and your writing flowing.
Have a Clear Plan
Know what you want to accomplish when you sit down to write. Maybe your goal is to keep your butt in your chair for twenty minutes, or to write 1,000 words, or to complete a scene, or to generate a first draft of a poem. It’s totally okay to change or discard the plan as you go. But sitting down with a sense of intention can help you choose a direction and gain some traction.
Write the Best Parts First
Prevailing productivity advice recommends that you do what’s hardest first and get it out of the way. But that doesn’t work for me at all. It sets me up for a context of difficulty and struggle, and that’s not the vibe I want to start my writing sessions with. When you start with what’s easy, fun, and irresistible to write, I believe you set yourself up for a big success first—and there is no energy source like delight to keep the writing coming.
Reassure Your Inner Editor, but Don’t Indulge Her
When you’re in generative writing mode, your internal editor can bring your progress to a grinding halt if she is allowed on the premises. To keep her assured that she will have a say when the time is right, develop a system for quickly marking issues you need to address later. I like to highlight sections that I know will need revision in yellow. Or sometimes, in a larger manuscript, I type FIX at places that require further attention so it’s easy to use the search function on my word processor to find those spots when I return to revise. Experiment with what works best for you so you can quickly notate what needs solving without getting bogged down in the details right now.
Keep Those Voices Out of the Room—All of Them
I’m talking literally and figuratively. From the people in your home whose lives and sounds overlap with yours to the ones living in your head who whisper unhelpful words to the ones reporting by the minute on endless social media platforms. Headphones can transport you to an oasis of peaceful sounds or music, while turning Wi-Fi off and silencing alert sounds and visuals on your phone or computer can provide the silence you need to focus on your own unimpeded thoughts, images, and language.
I find that the trickiest voices to tune out are the ones I carry with me. I have a tradition of thanking my unfriendly inner voices for trying in their awkward way to help me. Once they’ve been acknowledged, they tend to settle down.
Diverge from the Plan When It’s Time to Improvise
Structure is like the road in an open plain: It gives you a place to fix your eye to understand the path forward. But if you need to get out of the car and do cartwheels through the grass, and then get lost in the desert for a few nights, that can be just as fruitful. We all have different needs for structure and improvisation, and our needs may change from day to day and project to project. I invite you to experiment with both structure and improvisation, and in that way get to know your own sweet spot where you feel free to discover and remain clear about where you’re headed.
Know What’s Coming Next
When your writing session is over, make a note for yourself of what you intend to do first when you sit down the next time. (This circles back to my advice on having a clear plan.) Picking up at a place where you were in the flow can give you a sense of continuity, immediate orientation, and satisfaction. When you sit down next to write, you may be called in some new direction, and that’s great, too. But at the very least, you’ll have a solid point of departure from which to explore.
Sage Cohen is the author of the nonfiction books Fierce on the Page, Writing the Life Poetic, and The Productive Writer, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her prizewinning poems, essays, fiction, and how-to articles have been published widely, and Sage has been sought out as a literary instructor, writing coach, presenter, performer, and judge. As the founder of Sage Communications, she has been crafting the strategies and writing the words that accelerate business since 1997. Sage is a graduate of Brown University and the Creative Writing Program at New York University. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her young son and a menagerie of animals. Learn more at sagecohen.com.