As a teacher, I have often wondered how to get my students to write quickly. I have tried different techniques in my classes, but the regular practice of free writing has the best results for me.
The foremost benefit of free writing is that it helps the student maintain a train of thought and thus he is less hampered by writer’s block. Free writing is simply writing down whatever comes to your mind and not being hindered by trying to use the best wording or proper punctuation. Every time a student stops to think of how to say something, they forget what they were going to say next.
The key to the benefits of free writing is consistent practice. Writing is just like any other skill; it takes practice to get good at it. With free writing you are practicing letting your words flow freely from your brain to your page. The more you practice the more that flow will increase and the more cohesive your train of thought will be. Stopping to correct grammar or punctuation robs you of momentum just like the stopping of a real train. It takes time to get back on track and rolling again.
One challenge beginners face is that their minds tend to wonder off track to new topics. With beginning students this is okay. Remember the key is to keep the words flowing even if topics change. With practice they will be able to more fully explore one topic and keep their train of thought on one track. Another is that they may not know what to write next. In that case, I have them write exactly what they are thinking, “I don’t know what to write next!” After a few times of that, some kind of new thought will appear in their stalled mind and off they go again.
I implement free writing in my classes generally as an opener. I use it to get their brains flowing in the right direction and to create a fun perspective on the day’s topic. Let us suppose the goal of the class is to write a persuasive essay. I may begin by picking a topic I know my students are divided on, i.e. that cats make better pets than dogs or vice versa. Of course, there will be immediate opposition to this thought, so we hear them out and allow the students to verbalize for a few minutes. I might even push them on their opinions a little saying, “Well that might be just your personal experience with cats. Could it be you are the only one or are there others that have experienced that as well?” I will sneak in a few key elements for persuasive writing without ever telling them the principle. Once most of the class just cannot hold still anymore, I permit them to start writing. I say, “Okay, now, over the next eight minutes I want you to prove to me why cats make better pets then dogs, or vise versa. Remember no stopping your pencil and no using erasers!” As they write furiously, I will circle the class looking over their shoulders, making some comments out loud over what they are writing. I comment for two reasons. First, of course, is to give feedback to the one I am commenting to. Second is more subtle. Often part way through there will be a few students who are running out of steam and need some new ideas. Those will naturally be listening to my discussion with the one I am talking to and will gain some new fuel for their own writing. At the end, I generally have them count their words per minute to see how they are progressing toward a personal goal or in a class competition. I also often pick a few students to read what they wrote.
Here is the second benefit of free writing. After that introduction I launch into the technique for the day’s class and they already have some experience in using it in the free writing. Often, they can see that they already used the technique with out ever knowing about it. I try to capitalize on those moments to boost the student’s moral about their skills. “Hey, good job, you noticed! See you already know how to do this. Now let me tell you why it’s helpful.”
"I didn't know I could write that many words that fast!"
Big essays start looking more feasible. After getting the students through the first few times of free writing they will often comment, “I didn’t know I could write that many words in that short of a time.” If you think about it, to a seventh grader, an eight hundred-word essay looks monumental. The benefit here is that free writing boosts their confidence as a writer. They start seeing, “Wow if I can write two hundred words that fast maybe eight hundred isn’t so bad!”With time, my students also get to feel what it is like to have their thoughts flow quickly. They often comment on how they have so much to write about once they just get started. This helps them to not fear the assignment. They know it will come once they start writing.
A final benefit of free writing is that I can often find patterns in how a certain student processes information. This helps me to discover how to help that student’s style. I, as a teacher, can know better how to critique his writing because I can see what areas he struggles in. I also get a peek into what might be favorite topics or genres. When I need a topic for a tough assignment that I particularly need the student’s interest peaked; I will pull out one of those.
The benefits of free writing are well worth the time to do it. Your students will become more acclimated to churning out ideas quickly and keeping their momentum. They will be able to practice many literary techniques without feeling pressure to get it perfect. Use free writing and watch your student’s skills improve.
~ Andrew Yoder