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Tim Schafer

Writing Update #2: Freewriting Technique

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Hello to all writers, and to the writing-curious as well.

After Episode 2: A Promise of Infinite Possibility came out, I heard from a lot of people who said, "Tim, you should really make sure to trim your beard before filming, and also, stop playing with your nose." And then there were people who said they've tried the "freewriting" method I talked about in the show and had great results with it. I’ve also had many people ask me for more details. So, here! Have some details!

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fig. 1 – A actual specimen of freewriting

Freewriting is something I learned in the seventh grade. Our teacher Mr. Harrington made us all write non-stop in a notebook for two minutes. I thought it was fun because not stopping meant no time to think and worry about what you were writing. But I didn’t really use freewriting to help my regular writing until it came up in a college writing course. The class was in essay writing, and the professor often made the point that just because it wasn't a "creative writing" course, you still need to be creative. Writing non-fiction needs to be done creatively too. Whether you're a journalist or you're writing scientific notes, you still need to think of creative ways of reaching your audience and making your point clear.

Our professor advocated a four-draft method of writing:

Draft 1: Freewriting. Just spill your guts out and dirty up that white page. It doesn't have to make sense. No one will read it.

Draft 2: Actually form those words into something that looks like a serious attempt to make your point. It's okay to throw out all of draft 1 and start from scratch. This draft you actually give to people for feedback.

Draft 3: Here you take in all feedback and make major structural changes and edits to make your point better.

Draft 4: The only changes here are small polish items and proofreading.

The freewriting step is so important because sometimes the biggest hurdle is simply getting started on a project. But also I think it puts your brain into the right mode. I'm no brain scientist (surprise!) but I suspect it sends blood to the language centers in your brain (I obviously get all of my science information from Brain Age on DS) and makes you hyperverbal, if that's a word. Let’s say it is a word. If not, then it was probably a nickname some angry teacher gave a student who talked too much in class. But that never happened to me. Hey, let's just say it gets you thinking verbally, instead of in abstract thoughts.

Sometimes it also helps take the place of having another person to brainstorm with. I find that when I'm stuck on a creative writing project, I can talk to someone and that will unblock me. Sometimes that's because of something they say, but often it's just an idea I had while talking to that person. I don't know what it is about putting your thoughts into words that generates new thoughts, but it does! And if nobody is around to talk to, or you aren't ready to share your ideas with anyone, then writing in a notebook is the next best thing.

Often when doing that four-draft method, you will start out freewriting in step one, and you’ll be writing about your topic, then you'll drift off topic, then back on, then you’ll come up with a phrase you actually like and before you know it you’ve accidentally slipped into phase 2. You’re writing the actual essay. That’s okay--you just finish up the draft and then go back and clean up the intro.

Here are my own personal rules for freewriting:

- For me, it has to be first thing in the morning, when the brain is empty. You're not allowed to check email, Twitter, Facebook--nothing. Talk to as few people as possible beforehand. Every input you allow into your brain is just distracting junk that will grow and swell and muck things up. You are allowed to use the bathroom, but no reading in there. No verbal input!

- I have to listen to music on headphones that blocks out other distracting sounds. The music needs to be something you've heard a million times so it falls into the background and you don't think about it. It helps too, because if you’re sleepy (I’m always sleepy) you can crank the music really loud and that will help keep you up for a while.

- I write longhand in a notebook, but I’m not a fanatic about it. I’m sure you could also do it on a keyboard. It just feels better for me writing it out, even though my penmanship is terrible. Dragging pen across paper is quieter. And it's easier to draw pictures and make little stars in the margin when you have a good idea. And you can do it on an airplane during takeoff and landing. I also like that it gives you one more layer of separation from the final project, because every time you move across one of these layers (like typing in the handwritten notes) it's a natural opportunity for editing and refinement.

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fig. 2a – A so-so picture of a rocket.

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fig. 2b – An awesome picture of a 2-headed dragon.

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fig. 2c – A spine-chilling depiction of a real monster. Do not look at it right before bedtime.

- I have to promise myself that no one will ever read my freewriting. This is important because you can not self-edit while freewriting. You can't worry if what you're saying is nice, fair, well-written, or even legal. You need to be 100% open and honest and the way I do that is to tell myself no one else is ever going to read it. Later on you can share sections of it, but you don't have to. Unless some pesky documentarians try to capture it on film!

- You can not stop! Ever! Not even for a second. This is the NUMBER ONE thing! You pick an amount of time, whether it's two minutes, five, 30, or an hour. And you must constantly be moving your pen the entire time. You might not be able to think this fast, in which case you just repeat the last word you said over and over and over and over and over and over rutabaga watermelon Penelope Pitstop cannonball firecracker Julio Iglesias cowabunga and it doesn't matter. After time you will find that your brain is moving faster than your hand and you always have something you want to write down. A new rule I started this year is that if I ever stop writing and drift off, thinking about something else, I write "foul" in the margin and get back to writing. Not sure why I started this rule. I think I'm trying to discipline myself. Because it's important to not stop. If you stop, that's just regular writing, not freewriting.

- Have a goal. Five minutes, three hours, five full pages. Stop when you hit it. This isn't an endurance test. This is something you do every day. It's maintenance.

- Oh yeah--you have to do it every day. Or every weekday. Because writing is a job. It’s not eureka moments over and over. It’s grueling work, panning for gold. You just keep at it and eventually you get a few grains. Or flakes. Or whatever gold looks like in rivers. Or maybe it’s like fishing. Who cares? You just have to do it every day because you never know which day is going to be your productive day.

- If I have a good idea I like, I put a big star in the margin, and underline the important words or sentence. Or if it's a whole paragraph, then I draw a vertical line down the margin on the side of all the words. This helps me find the good ideas later. It's hard to comb through all the garbage and rutabagas and watermelons to find those golden idea nuggets you know you had the week before if you don’t leave behind some visual bookmarks.

3a.jpg

3b.jpg

- Figure out whatever notation works for you. If I have an off-topic idea (another game, et cetera) I write it up in the top margin of the page. If I think of a cool name for a character, even if I don't know who gets that name yet, I write it in a special "names" area that I come back to when I need a name. For me, I write them on the manila pocket separators between sections in my five-subject notebook. Make up your own system that you like.

- Always write down the full date of each entry. It makes you feel pretentious at first, like signing a painting, but you'll get over it. You might want the info later. Sometimes I write down what music I'm listening to, even though that’s dumb and LiveJournaly. It helps me feel like I’m capturing the moment, which fights back the panicky feeling that you are going to forget the current moment. Even if the current moment is stupid. Like people who take notes in college. You knew they were never going to look at those notes, but the notes helped them fight that panicky feeling that they were going to forget everything.

- Draw pictures if you feel like drawing pictures. This might go against my "hyperverbal" point, but I still do it. Also I make a lot of charts. Especially about story structure. Just go wherever your mind takes you, as long as you NEVER STOP WRITING.

There you have it! All the secrets of writing revealed! And here you thought it was so hard.

Here’s your homework assignment: Go out and get a new spiral notebook and a box of pens, and tomorrow morning start freewriting. I mean, it probably won’t kill you. But I can’t guarantee anything.

-Tim

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And I was just thinking, "That sounds like a good idea. I should do it. Totally. Absolutely. Someday."

Now there's no choice.

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Revealing your freewriting superpower was the worst move you could make, Mr. Schafer. MWAHAHA! With this knowledge I can now rule the world. Tomorrow, after I drink my coffee. Or maybe next week if I feel like it. Whatever.

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Well, I was thinking about getting my own five subject notebook, but now that it's a homework assignment, I dunno...

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Loved reading this post! Been kinda curious about free writing since you posted that picture of your new notebook.

The Monsters of Procrastination are the worst.

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It's been a while since I've done much actual writing on paper, but I used to get hand cramps pretty easily when writing (essays could be tortuous back in high school if hand-written papers were required), and I'm not sure if that's changed over the years, but I'm tempted to give this a go.

I guess there's always typing it out instead of writing it down if I still get hand cramps, but I agree that there's just something special about writing on paper as opposed to typing. I could still keep a paint program open and draw with my tablet to feed those doodling urges, but it's just not quite the same.

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Just freewrote for 3 minutes.

Holy shit.

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Now if only we could get a juicy pic of the pages with the real meat in them. Great insight into the working mind of Tim! Keep up the interesting posts!!

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A spine-chilling depiction of a real monster. Do not look at it right before bedtime.

Oh no... I'm about to go to bed and looked at it (because the warning is under the image, not above).

It's already haunting me, I wonder if there are any remedies... I'll try some freewriting.

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I always seem to struggle when someone tells me to free write. I get stuck on trying to come up with something interesting to write about. But when I do it just for myself I can wind up writing endless pages of a somewhat to say the least interesting story. It's odd the way it works as if when someone tells me to come up with something I sit there trying to impress them with my writing. Yet doing it for myself I write with no fear.

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Genuinely interesting read. I didn't realize writing something like a review or a short story was so similar to how you come up with games. Personally I prefer a legal pad/folder combo since it gives me more margin space to make notes on and a place to put any sheets I may tear out to use as reference notes later on but still pretty cool.

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Well played, Tim, well played... Just one problem: I am a college student, that means I don't do homework.

But, just because it's you, I promise I will try.

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All too often I wait for that eureka moment while writing and end up doing nothing. It's such a silly thing for me do... considering the fact that most of my moments of illumination come either late at night in bed or early in the morning when I shower.

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or early in the morning when I shower.
What is up with showers and thinking?

I also found my mind tended to wander into neat places when mowing my mother's enormous lawn.

I've heard writers will keep a notepad by the bed to write down neat ideas had before drifting off to sleep, or to write down content of dreams, since those are memories that tend to be easily lost.

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I have no clue... The relaxed atmosphere has something to do with it.. at least in my case, as it's one of the few worry-free moments of my day.

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Im gonna try this, although it sounds really difficult to just let go. I usually sketch and mindmap and do association brainstorming and stuff like that. Im on the train 40 mins in the morning so I have a lot of time to give it a go.

Id love to have a closer peek at those freewriting books for grim fandango like you showed, and the other ones...would be so cool to see all the loose ideas and which made it to the games. but I guess thats against the freewriting rules =)

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This is wonderful information. Thank you for providing it.

Freewriting is a practice that obviously is not isolated to itself. Visual artists, for example, commonly use doodling as their variation. I'm immediately reminded of artist Tatsuya Terada, aka "Doodle King", in that he is iconic for simply doodling anything, anywhere, at anytime, consistently. In addition, you also have music artists who will tell you to just record yourself humming tunes you conjure up or to use a piano or keyboard and just start messing around. It's evident that our brains in its tendency to 'overstructuralize" can be a bane more than a boon to creative ingenuity, so it's often necessary to simply splurge in order to concoct some of the better material for use.

As someone who is trying often to express his creativity through any means, be it visual, auditory, or otherwise, any help to first solidify those ideas onto a medium more reliable than the ole noggin is very beneficial. Again, thanks a mil. I'm sure this will greatly expedite the work of many aspirational entrepreneurs of art.

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How important is the early in the morning part? I can understand not having interruptions because it might break one's flow, but can't doing it at the end of the day allow you to make use of what has happened throughout the day? I suppose there must be resources other than Mr. Schafer about how to do good free writing.

Does a single notebook of free writing have to all be toward a certain subject? That is, if I'm writing a philosophy essay, but in my spare time I'm writing a comic, and in my other spare time I'm writing a game story, can that all go together in the same free writing session in the same notebook?

The not showing anyone business could be tricky. Certain family members have demonstrated a lack of respect for privacy.

I have to write an essay now, so if not for it being night it would be a good opportunity to try free writing. On the other hand, I'm unsure about whether it's even worth spending the time doing free writing when I think I already know what I'm going to write about. Maybe I don't know what I'm going to write about, or I'll get blocked, or the free writing would help me phrase it better.

Well, if Mr. Schafer commands me to start free writing tomorrow, I guess I'll have to start doing it. I won't be fresh in the morning though, so maybe at night tomorrow. I think the essay's going to be an all nighter. And I don't know about this notebook business. Maybe I'll just try writing it on line paper and eventually move to a notebook when I really get into it. I feel getting a notebook would just be another excuse for me to not start because I don't wanna go to the notebook store.

We never learned it in school. The only time I heard about it outside the DFA documentary was in "The Sixth Sense". They didn't describe it well enough. They said you keep the pen moving, but they didn't say you were supposed to be writing. They made it sound like the writing just magically starts happening if you keep the pen moving long enough. I tried it once using that description and eventually got tired of drawing lines and started writing, but I thought I was cheating. And I guess either I didn't think to look it up on the Internet or the Internet simply wasn't awesome enough then to provide me with information on that topic.

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Just freewrote for 3 minutes.

Holy shit.

And now you're morphing into a caveman/starchild like the end of Altered States combined with 2001: A Space Odyssey, aren't you? I guess I should have warned you about that.

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Your handwriting is just about identical to mine. For some reason that's a big confidence boost. =P

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And now you're morphing into a caveman/starchild like the end of Altered States combined with 2001: A Space Odyssey, aren't you? I guess I should have warned you about that.

Holy Primordial Robot references on a Roy Scheider day parade! You totally blew my mind!

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I've been freewriting almost everyday off and on for about 2 years now. it is very nice.

I really like the feeling you get afterward -- it's very similar to the sensation of having extremely, freshly cleaned hands or dentist-cleaned teeth, except for your brain.

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Spot on... I really only do it if I can't fall asleep. Clears my mind.

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