How to Use Freewriting to Generate Short Story Ideas

Woman writing on paper, close-up
•••   Todd Warnock/Getty Images

Freewriting can be one of the best and easiest exercises to get yourself out of a creative rut and generate short story ideas. It requires a minimum amount of time and preparation and is perfect for those suffering from writer's block. In short, freewriting involves writing nonstop, regardless of content, for a predetermined period of time—usually just a few minutes. It's a way to force yourself to start putting words and sentences on paper without any regard for where they may be coming from or what, if anything, you might do with them.

Even though this seems like an undisciplined way to write, there still are things you can do to set yourself up for successful freewriting sessions.

Choose Your Tools

Sit down at a desk with a pen and paper or a keyboard and a computer. Some writers prefer writing by hand. It can feel more personal, which can lead to a boost in creativity, and it's also easier to have a pen and a small notebook readily available wherever you are if you're the sort of person who frequently jots down thoughts or ideas. Regardless of option, choose what is most comfortable for you and what will help you to be the most productive.

Freewriting can be done anywhere, but ideally, you should choose a quiet place where you won't be distracted or interrupted.

Set Your Deadline

Decide beforehand how much time you'll spend writing. If you're new to freewriting, you might want to start with just a couple of minutes to get yourself into the habit and get a feel for the process. Even if you're experienced with the exercise, no more than 5 or 10 minutes should be necessary. Set a timer or an alarm for however long you determine, and just start writing for that entire time.

The Writing

Write without stopping until the timer goes off. Do not lift your pen from the paper or take your fingers from the keyboard, even if this means writing, "I don't know what to write," over and over again. Write nonsense, write anything, but don't stop writing. When you find an idea that seems interesting, follow that thread wherever it takes you, even if it seems abstract or nonsensical. Go off on tangents and follow those. For the allotted time, continue to do anything that keeps words flowing from your brain to your fingers to the page.

 Part of the point is to get out of your head and let your subconscious take over. If you able to concentrate on the process rather than the content, sometimes the content will end up surprising you. Like a yogi concentrating on their breathing in order to get "focus," you will concentrate on writing consistently in order to create.

Now What?

If something sparked your interest and felt like an idea worth pursuing while you were freewriting, go back immediately after the timer goes off and highlight that passage. You might even want to jot down a few notes about that idea so you can build on it later. If nothing stood out immediately as worthwhile, just set aside the pages you generated to review later.

When reviewing what you've written, see if anything sparks your interest. Finding fragments or even one word that you decide to keep should be considered a success. Look closely and try not to dismiss what you've come up with. Even if you don't find story ideas or character ideas, you might find something that can serve as a writing prompt to be used later.

Build on Past Freewriting Exercises

Freewriting doesn't always have to be completely unstructured. Once you start writing, you certainly want to let yourself go wherever the writing takes you, but sometimes you can begin your sessions by combining elements from past freewriting sessions. For example, perhaps a previous freewriting exercise led to some eccentric qualities in a character, and another exercise resulted in a description of a strange location. Use those two elements—an eccentric character and a strange location—as a starting point for a later freewriting session.

The more you write and the more you come up with small ideas and minor details, the more you can build on those until you have characters that feel real in scenarios you want to explore.