free writing

Free writing

Old-fashioned methods survive because they work. Among the techniques that hold promise for callow mass media writers and veterans alike is a method of writing known as free writing. Some writers remember penning essays where they wrote the first idea that came to mind, then the next and so on until the idea reservoir was dry. This crude convention didn’t produce memorable prose but it freed the writer to get on paper a bevy of thoughts. That’s free writing.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say your editor flashed you a message to bolt to a fire at the historic church on Center Square. You grab a notebook and two lead pencils, sling a 35mm camera over your shoulder and break for the door. Within a few minutes, you’re at the scene watching the spectacle.

Six firefighters wrestle hoses off an engine. Flames peek through a second story window. A crowd of shoppers forms at a safe distance. An elderly woman holds the arm of a man in an overcoat, crying silently. In the distance, you see a single-engine airplane veer toward the west and you suddenly become aware that a wind tosses your hair from side to side and the rank odor of smoke assaults your nostrils.

In short, your senses are bombarded. You want to capture the moment as a rough draft of the event, but you know that the story demands quotations from authorities, including the church leadership, firefighters and eyewitnesses.

Back at the newsroom, you must select a lead that captures the tragedy of the moment including the color appropriate for a fire that destroys some property but doesn’t cause any personal injuries. You may be writing a breaking news story, sometimes called hard news, but the technique works for both hard, tragic news and soft news, or feature news. This occasion suggests free writing. You take a long pull from a bottle of mountain water or hot beverage and get to work. For five minutes you write non-stop. You dump all your impressions on the page. Stray thoughts are allowed.

“Flames bright orange and white-yellow. Get Honda brakes check. The woman’s crying sounded like a tinny toy sound. Confusion. Sadness. The fire chief spits when he talks fast.”

You write and write and write or type and type and type until five minutes passes. Then you look at these random observations and mine for the one gem that could sum up the story as a summary lead might do, but with some passion and spirit.

In some cases, this process yields a winner. The goal of the exercise is to not, repeat, not edit the words as they appear. The goal is to reach deep into your mind for images, pictures, impressions that help reveal the story that you want to tell.

Once the words can be seen and read, the writer can eliminate most of them, but those rare, rich phrases that fall lightly from the lips and ring true in the ear may be the ones that will make the article sing. This technique is worth trying on occasion, for no other reason than it can be liberating. Should it produce no powerful results, slide the idea into your mental toolbox with a reminder to try it another time.

Variation on the summary lead

When it works, free writing may lead to a phrase that you want to stamp into the first sentence. Perhaps it’s one word.


That’s a one-word lead for an article on a basketball team that fought back from a dismal season to snag a place in a tournament.


That’s another one-word lead on a feature story about ice cream.

These leads are examples of creative leads, which work best for feature stories but can be used anytime. An article about a 10-year-old girl who writes reviews of children’s book for an out-of-town newspaper is the kind of story that doesn’t become stale if it isn’t printed or broadcast right away.

These kind of stories are known as soft news stories and tend to focus on lighter topics that entertain. Many depend on human interest, unraveling the human condition. Since this quality covers the spectrum of behavior, many of the approaches are considered standards and are written over and over again. Often, feature news is considered more timeless. It’s even referred to as an evergreen, news that holds up no matter the calendar. It is always fresh and in bloom.

For instance, a person who rescues another person is the substance of dramatic stories. While the event can be written as hard news–news that must be printed or broadcast immediately or it loses its value–a more complete story would require a longer, feature touch.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Michael Ray Smith‘s book Used with permission.

Download the entire book for free from our MTI Online resource center.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

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