I'd rather not calculate the hours -- probably days --that I've lost simply by staring at a blank screen, not knowing what I should write about or how I should even begin. Imagine the tens of thousands of additional words I could have produced during that time!
One incredibly simple and powerful method for breaking through this paralyzing feeling is freewriting. In his book, Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, Peter Elbow, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, spends an entire chapter on it.
Here's how he describes the process: "To do a freewriting exercise, simply force yourself to write without stopping for ten minutes. Sometimes you will produce good writing, but that's not the goal...If you can't think of anything to write, write about how that feels or repeat over and over 'I have nothing to write' or 'Nonsense' or 'No.' If you get stuck in the middle of a sentence or thought, just repeat the last word or phrase till something comes along. The only point is to keep writing."
If you're a busy executive or entrepreneur trying to find more time to write --whether it's a business plan or a blog -- here's what freewriting can do for you:
1. Freewriting makes writing easier.
Ever since I can remember, and even to this day, I've been a meticulous writer. That's my humble-brag euphemism for saying I'm a slow writer. I'm slow because I sweat every word in every sentence, rearranging in my head, trying out different permutations, before typing it out -- only to go back and rewrite again, and again, and again, and again. Freewriting, as Elbow claims, can help you break out of this time-sucking process:
"So much writing time and energy is spent not writing: wondering, worrying, crossing out, having second, third, and fourth thoughts...Frequent freewriting exercises help you learn simply to get on with it and not be held back by worries about whether these words are good words or the right words."
2. Freewriting helps you learn to write when you don't feel like writing.
From my numerous conversations with writers on my podcast, and having read dozens of books on the craft of writing, it's hard not to conclude that learning to be a productive writer, and also a good writer, is the result of cultivating the habit of writing. It's the constant struggle against the "Resistance," as Steven Pressfield calls it in his classic book, The War of Art.
"It is practice in setting deadlines for yourself, taking charge of yourself, and learning gradually how to get that special energy that sometimes comes when you work fast under pressure," says Elbow.
3. Freewriting teaches you to write without thinking about writing.
Speaking and writing are deceptively similar exercises. Both involve the conversion of thoughts into words. But as Elbow describes it, they differ in at least one very important way, and it partly explains why writing is so hard.
"We can usually speak without thinking about speech --without thinking about how to form words in the mouth and pronounce them and the rules of syntax we unconsciously obey --and as a result we can give undivided attention to what we say. Not so writing."
While you can still stumble and pause and get nervous when you speak, with writing, the process is a lot messier, more prone to error, and definitely more stressful.
"Freewriting helps you learn to just say it."
4. Freewriting is a quick outlet for venting your feelings.
Writing can easily be seen as a cold, analytical process devoid of emotion. Unless it's a computer-driven AI generating the words, this is not the writing process I know. Writing is inextricably tied up with how you're feeling at the very moment you're doing it.
Elbow puts it this way: "We have lots in our heads that makes it hard to think straight and write clearly: we are mad at someone, sad about something, depressed about everything. Perhaps even inconveniently happy...Freewriting is a quick outlet for these feelings so they don't get so much in your way when you are trying to write about something else."
5. Freewriting helps you to think of topics to write about.
Stymied for topics to write about? I know I often am. Freewriting can help turn on the ideas spigot in your brain and get them flowing again. Says Elbow: "Just keep writing, follow threads where they lead and you will get to ideas, experiences, or people that are just asking to be written about."
6. Freewriting improves your writing.
Over-thinking, over-editing: These are things that can not only slow down writers, but also strip their content of the verve and the passion that becomes so evident when they tap into deeper, unconscious sources of inspiration and ideas.
"Freewriting gives practice in this special mode of focusing-but-not-trying; it helps you stand out of the way and let words be chosen by the sequence of the words themselves or the thought, not by the conscious self. In this way freewriting gradually puts a deeper resonance or voice into your writing."