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The writing process

Learn more about aspects of the writing process to help you stay motivated and on track with your writing.

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Freewriting is essentially unstructured, uncensored, writer-based prose:

  • Unstructured: Write without worrying about the correct or most "logical" order of sentences and ideas.
  • Uncensored: Write without the expectations that anyone else will read your thoughts, so no ideas are off limits (Berkenkotter, 1982, p. 36).
  • "Writer-based" prose: Write while prioritizing your needs and your preferred way of organizing and thinking out loud over a reader's goals and expectations (Flower, 1979, p. 36).

Keep the following suggestions in mind as you try this approach:

  1. Keep writing. This sounds simple, but it is surprisingly difficult to keep track of where your mind is wandering off to and continue writing. If you find your mind wandering, follow it. Write about it. If you can't think of anything to write, write "I can't think of anything to write".
  2. Keep writing until you are allowed to stop. Yes, you are allowed to stop, but it should be because you've reached a predetermined goal for word count or an amount of time spent writing.  
  3. Find a quiet time and place away from distractions. Since you will be writing about anything and everything you are thinking about, if you are in a noisy environment, you will simply start writing about that environment, including the people around you! Even worse, you may be interrupted, which makes following the first two rules difficult.
  4. Don't judge! Often, the most difficult part of thinking and writing is our fear of judgment and failure. While freewriting, resist the temptation to proofread, edit, revise, or otherwise correct your writing, especially to meet someone else's expectations. There is no such thing as an incorrect word, sentence, or idea in a freewrite. Remember, you are the only reader, and there is no one else to impress or to fear. 

When you follow these four rules, you will have one guaranteed result: writing the number of words or for the amount of time you aimed for. Unlike outlining or concept mapping, in freewriting you list as many of your ideas as possible. In doing to, aim for quantity rather than quality in an effort to generate ideas. The activity may also result in an idea you continue to write about for your reader, or an entire sentence or paragraph that you want to use in a future assignment.

Often, freewriting can also be a good way of warming up before you start working on other aspects of your paper since it prompts you to start thinking and writing productively and creatively. More than anything else, freewriting is a reliable record of your thought process as you explore your topic, so you can then return to something you have written days or weeks after and remind yourself of the promising and insightful ideas you generated.

Image credit: Dollar Gill via Unsplash


Berkenkotter, C. (1982). Writing and problem solving. In T. Fulwiler & A. Young (Eds.), Language connections: Writing and reading across the curriculum (pp. 33-44). National Council of Teachers of English.

Flower, L. (1979). Writer-based prose: A cognitive basis for problems in writing. College English, 41(1), 19-37.

Listen to (and list) your mental questions

If you are having trouble thinking of and writing down ideas, try switching your focus to listing your thoughts about the topic in question form. After all, sometimes thinking of ideas is difficult because you don't know enough about your topic. Deciding what information you are missing or what work you still need to do to move forward in your writing process still moves you forward toward the goal of having questions to answer (see Setting Goals).

You may feel tempted to ignore questions or change the focus of them to a topic with which you feel more comfortable. However, avoiding difficult questions can actually rule out possibilities for the genuinely insightful answers. Realizing what you don't know is an important step in starting and improving your research and writing process, so rather than forgetting or suppressing your questions when they occur to you, try to build on these questions!

Similar to Freewriting, you can approach this as an exercise where you follow a train of mental association to generate as many questions as you can. Once you have thought of all the questions you can or have run out of time, go back to your list and see which ones you know the answer to and which ones you want to pursue the answers to. You may also want to discard questions that are impossible to answer within the scope of your work. The best questions are often open-ended questions that will take some work to answer, without being too difficult or impossible to approach within your paper. In fact, these sorts of questions can often become a starting point for an excellent research paper, literature review, graduate-level research project, or thesis. For more information, see: