Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Spontaneous Writing

....is a way to tap into your creative side and quell the self-consciousness that stifles fluent writing.  If you have trouble writing smoothly, have trouble thinking of the right words, or cannot seem to write unless you "feel ready to write", then spontaneous writing exercises might help.  Even if you are already writing, practicing such techniques can help you generate ideas, raise your consciousness about your writing habits, and lead you toward more fluid and rewarding writing experiences.

The method is to rise early and before you do anything else such as having coffee or reading the paper, you write about anything that comes to mind.  You write as fast as you can without concern about grammar, punctuation, or if your writing is interesting.  Don't reread what you've written; don't think about what you should write next; just put down whatever thought comes to you.  If you can't think of a word, just leave a blank or series of letters and move on.  This is done daily for 10-15 minutes for about 2 weeks.  Below is an example:

My mind is blank.  I find it difficult to think when faced with getting something down on paper.  It's the blankness of the paper that haunts me.  The paper is almost mocking me by being so empty--like my mind is at the moment.  I try to think of a topic, but nothing occurs to me except writing and why I have such a difficult time of it.  I want to be able to write, but can't seem to get past this problem of initial dread at the thought of filling up an entire sheet of blank paper.  I'm surprised now at how many words I've already written, and I've done this pretty quickly, maybe a minute?  It's hard to judge how much time has passed, but it seems pretty quick.  I've written almost a paragraph, which is beginning to feel somewhat amazing to me.  I've never been able to write so much in such a short period.  It's beginning to feel natural now to write without thinking about what to write next.  It just seems to come, to flow out of my fingers and onto the page.  I don't know if what I've written makes sense or not, but it definitely feels good.

I wrote the above example by pretending to be a person who has primary writer's block (unable to write at all) and writing what I imagined that person might write on their first try at spontaneous writing.  I did it as one would actually do spontaneous writing--quickly, without thinking, and without editing. The words are exactly as they came and without any thinking or planning beforehand.  I was not sure what would happen, but was curious to see how it would turn out.    

Spontaneous writing can help people with writing anxiety or who are perfectionists.  Self-consciousness is the culprit here.  If you worry about potential imperfections or what others might think of your writing, your brain gets jammed up and puts the brakes on.  If you let your internal critic restrict you, then spontaneity and fluidity are repressed.  The objective of spontaneous writing is to learn to write unselfconsciously.

Practicing spontaneous writing is particularly good for jump-starting someone who is paralyzed by the thought of writing. I once had a member of my staff who had extreme difficulty writing.  His problem was that he thought he had to write each sentence perfectly, and this thought prevented him from making any progress.  I suggested that he try writing a section of a paper without worrying about grammar--just to get the ideas down on paper.  He resisted at first, but I showed him an example of a draft of a paper I was writing.  It had sections missing, and there were incomplete sentences and thoughts.  He was quite amazed because he thought my papers, which he had read, just came out of my head in a form very close to the final version.  After trying my suggestion, he came back very excited at how he was able to get an entire section drafted without his usual difficulty.  


Spontaneous writing has its origins in what was known as automatic writing, popular during the 1800s.  Spiritualists used it as a way to tap into the spirit world.  Automatic writing was done in a meditative or trance-like state, but sometimes produced some surprisingly creative writing.  Instead of communicating with the spirits, practitioners were actually connecting with their sub-conscious and by-passing the self-critic.

There is a downside to spontaneous writing, however, if it's taken too far.  The problem is that people get hooked on it and cannot move on to more mature, productive forms of writing. They become addicted to the spontaneity.  Also, it can tap into disturbing or traumatic memories and possibly lead to emotional distress.  So take care with this method.

For the aspiring author, continuing too long in the spontaneous writing phase is unproductive because it prevents the next step, which is to incorporate planning and direction into the spontaneity.  This more mature type of writing is called generative writing.  The method is similar to that for spontaneous writing in that you write quickly and without editing.  The difference is that you write about a specific topic and have a direction in mind.  The easiest way to do this is to pick a memorable event and write it as though telling a story.  Once your ideas are on paper, you can go back and edit, correcting grammar and punctuation or rearranging sentences into a more logical sequence.

Sharing your attempts at either spontaneous or generative writing with others is beneficial to the process.  Writing groups composed of peers who are supportive and uncritical can share their writing by reading aloud.  I find that students and novice writers are very reluctant to share their initial attempts with someone whose writing they admire or are perceived as excellent writers.  However, when everyone is similarly inexperienced, the fear of looking bad is somewhat diminished.

I can imagine such a writing group starting out with descriptions of past experiences and then moving on to assignments in which the group spontaneously writes a paragraph or a page related to their topic of study, e.g., explaining why their work is important and how it will contribute to the field.  Such practice often leads to some creative and interesting insights.  It ultimately teaches a writer to trust that lack of control (by the internal editor) is not to be feared and that the act of writing actually generates insights and creative thoughts that don't occur while just thinking about writing projects.

An advanced writer can write spontaneously and edit simultaneously without inhibiting spontaneity.  But it's a fine balancing act.  The trick is not to get stumped when you can't think of a word--just leave a blank and go on.  The idea is to let your imagination go free and get your ideas down on paper.  This ability does not mean never having to edit or rewrite.  You will always have to carefully review and revise a rough draft.  Even if you are able to write fairly polished sentences in a rough draft, you might need to go through several versions before settling on the best way to express your ideas.

The next posts will deal with long-term writing strategies and some specific recommendations for improving technical writing.

3 comments:

Comrade PhysioProf said...

before you do anything else such as having coffee

HAVE YOU LOST YOUR FUCKING MIND!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

DrDoyenne said...

Perhaps a bit less caffeine would improve one's disposition and....word choice. :-)

Tsu Dho Nimh said...

I'm a technical writer and editor.

My first drafts are absolutely craptastic and I edit them into something I can show my boss. But it beats having writer's block.

I wish writing classes spent more time on how to edit, because that's where drafts turn into user manuals, journal submissions, and bodice rippers.