The prewriting toolkit: freewriting and looping

My previous post looked at prewriting, offering some definitions, exploring what it means for the creative process and posing the question as to whether or not it can be taught. In this first follow-up piece, I offer some practical prewriting exercises, tools that might help to generate new ideas and to unblock ones that are stuck.  Today, we’ll look at freewriting and looping.

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Peter Elbow, former professor of writing at the University of Massachussets, Amherst is credited with bringing freewriting into general use (though the method was first coined by Ken McCrorie in 1964).  His work is worth checking out: his books* advocate a process-led form of writing which – certainly at the time they were published – broke the traditionalist mode of teaching and thinking about writing.

How does freewriting work?

It generates ideas by ‘freeing’ the link between your brain and your pen. In freewriting, the object is to write as quickly and as freely as you can, and generate as many ideas as possible in a timed period: five or ten minutes is the standard time limit.  You can go on for longer than that, but it can be tiring.  It’s best to start with a shorter time, then build up gradually.

In practice: how to do it

  • Find an area of interest – an image, a word, phrase or idea.  One way of starting is to write a quick list and see which item appeals most.  Or you might want to find a sentence from a story or poem as a way of kickstarting your writing.  You might also start with a question (this works well for developing characters and also for essays, academic writing or non-fiction).
  • Write nonstop for your allotted time slot (five or ten minutes).  Write rapidly, without stopping to correct or reread or edit. The point is to generate ideas on paper, so your pen must keep moving. If you find yourself getting stuck, rewrite the title or first line of your topic a few times to get going.

This works best by writing long enough to begin to run out of ideas.  Pushing through that barrier of not-knowing-what-comes-next is often where the real creativity happens because we need to start thinking more laterally.

“If you’re freewriting well, you’ll concentrate so hard on truth telling and write so fast you’ll put yourself in a kind of trance, like that state between waking and sleep…when a gaggle of good ideas or memories come together for you.”

Ken McCrorie



How does looping work?

Elbow took freewriting to the next level with the introduction of looping.  It works by identifying, after each freewrite, the line, phrase or word which stands out the most and making that the starting point for the next freewrite.  Looping can be a brilliant way to explore connections between seemingy unconnected topics or ideas.

In practice: how to do it

  • At the end of your five or ten minutes of freewriting, read back what you’ve written.
  • Decide what is most important – the ‘hot spot’ –  a thought, a pattern of ideas, a phrase, a detail.
  • To complete the loop, express this thought in a single sentence on a fresh sheet of paper (the fresh sheet is important because it allows your brain to focus on that line or phrase alone).

You can loop again, and again (and again, if necessary), until you arrive at something you feel has substance.  This could be a tentative story idea or, say, the main argument for an essay or a piece of academic writing.  With each loop, your ideas should become more focused and articulated.

*Explore further:

Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers (New York: OUP, 1973, 1998)

Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (New York: OUP, 1981)


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