The goal of writing practice is to train your writer’s mind. We can think of the writer’s mind as having two main parts: content-mind and craft-mind. Content-mind provides us with ideas for things to write about and material to use; craft-mind gives us words and sentences so we can get what we want to say into the minds of readers. When we train both parts of our writer’s mind, we can fulfill the basic requirement for good writing: Have something interesting to say, and say it as well as possible.
Many people who want to write get stuck because they can't find the things they have to say. Exercising the content-mind will provide you with lots and lots of material.
If you’ve been doing the basic freewriting practice on a regular basis, you have likely noticed that there’s much more inside your mind than you realized. Nonstop, private writing is a great tool for bringing all that “stuff” out onto the page so you can see whether there’s any material you can use in a piece of writing. Freewriting, by itself, will give your content-mind a good deal of exercise.
Sometimes, though, freewriting by itself isn’t enough; it’s too random, not focused enough. That’s because putting words on paper without any intention is only the most basic “move” of writing, just as swinging a baseball bat without trying to connect with a ball is the most basic move of hitting. Once you’re comfortable putting words on paper, you can bring other mental faculties into the act of writing; you can engage your content-mind more fully.
In the book, How To Be a Writer, you will find practices for exercising several different mental faculties which are part of a writer’s content-mind: creativity, memory and expertise, observation, imagination, curiosity, the subconscious. In this lesson, let’s focus on creativity to help us generate material for a piece of writing. Creativity, by the way, is not some big mystery; in the realm of writing, it’s just the ability to come up with things to say. You’ve already woken up your creative faculty with the basic freewriting practice. Now we’ll learn how to give that creative faculty some direction.
PRACTICE: FINDING SUBJECTS
Using nonstop writing, list all the subjects you can think of that you might like to write about. If you get stuck, repeat the last thing you wrote until your mind gives you something else.
Now look through your list and mark all the subjects that stand out for you right now. From these marked subjects, pick one, and write it at the top of a new page.
PRACTICE: COLLECTING MATERIAL
Use the freewriting technique to write down everything you can think of right now about your chosen subject. You are not “writing a piece,” so there’s no need to organize or to write coherently. What you are doing is something you need to do before you can write a draft: you are simply collecting material on your subject. So keep your pen (or your fingers) moving for at least ten minutes while you unpack from your mind whatever is in there about your subject.
You may find your mind drifting away from your subject. If that happens, gently bring it back. And try not to censor yourself; remember that this is just practice.
This practice of writing nonstop about a particular subject—a technique known as focused freewriting —has many benefits. One of the most important is that it provides a way to collect material for pieces of writing. Whenever you want to write something, rather than starting in immediately to write a draft, you will have a much easier time if you begin with collecting material.
Because regular practice of focused freewriting helps you collect material, it also strengthens your content-mind, making you more aware of the mental storehouse of possible material available for you to use.
At the same time, this practice adds a new element to the basic writing activity of putting ideas and images on paper. Just like a practicing baseball player who swings the bat AND keeps his eye on the ball at the same time, a writer who practices focused freewriting is engaged in simultaneously putting material on paper AND focusing that material in a particular direction. The more you practice focused freewriting, then, the more you practice doing the work that professional writers do—and, in the process, you will develop your ability to focus and to concentrate.
To make good use of the practice of focused freewriting, try this: Make a list of the subjects you want to write about, and add to it whenever you like. Then, when you sit down to practice, pick one of the subjects from your list and use focused freewriting to collect material on that subject. Soon your content mind will become stronger, and you will have a notebook bulging with material you can use for pieces of writing.