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[Diary of a Memoirist] Freewriting? Or Writing for Free?
Written by
Nancy K. Miller
August 2017
Written by
Nancy K. Miller
August 2017

One of the nice things, or so I thought, about publishing a book that actual people might read, was being asked to answer interview questions in writing. How cool! I get to talk about the book I wrote, not to mention me! Soon after publishing my memoir Breathless, I received a few requests of this sort. Flattered, I said yes. I said yes more than once. I’m still saying yes, though skeptically, and with a sense of embarrassment sliding into shame. Why is that? Because I am writing for free. I’m sure that well-known writers would not do this—write for free. Either the inquiring venue would offer a fee, or the agent would demand one. Only we sps (supplicant writers) never even ask. We are grateful for the chance to win over another reader. We drink the Kool-Aid.

As an academic, of course, I’m used to writing for free. (Why pay us? We earn a salary.) Our reward for publishing books that don’t make money for their publishers and therefore don’t receive advances is appearing in a footnote a few years later, turning up in an index. Whoa, now that is exciting, or what we academics consider rewarding, especially since the opposite—being left out of a note or an index—can be a vexing, if not humiliating experience. (For a stellar account of humiliation see my colleague Wayne Koestenbaum’s brilliant Humiliation.)

I realized that I was getting bothered by the prospect of writing for free when I was asked to provide a photo essay for a travel magazine that had run a piece (um, interview) on my book. It would take a fair amount of work (on the assumption that they found my photographs exciting enough to run), and would it really send readers to my book? Was it worth my time? 

As I was thinking not just about time, but how much time and money (there’s the website, the publicist, the author photo, the launch—all on our nickel) we sps spend to help our books to survive, the concept of “freewriting” popped into my mind. Freewriting is a term for a wonderful writing practice developed by Peter Elbow in Writing Without Teachers. The key to freewriting is nonediting during the exerciseFreewriting means just sitting down and letting whatever comes out on the page flow. Freewriting expresses your voice, your rhythm, Elbow argues, and without that you are nothing. Now, you may well want or need to edit after you’ve completed the exercise, oiled the machine. That’s a courtesy to your reader. But it’s a different process. Elbow no doubt coined the term before automatic spell check came along to turn freewriting—one word—into two. And of course the compulsive self-editing built into writing on the computer.

So here’s my idea. Do “writing for free” only as freewriting. Again, with the caveat, of checking afterwards for spelling mistakes or total incoherence. That way, you do the writing for free faster, which means cheaper—for you—and, according to Elbow, writing better. You are wasting less time doing something with dubious cost-benefit ratio. I, for one, already feel a lot better.

What say you?

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  • Karin Finell;

    I have been freewriting for a long time. I write on my continued memoir as it comes out of my brain onto the page, and when I read it to the group and some of them have copies to edit, I then go back home and edit the pages. Sometime when i get too enthusiastic about certain passages, I have a tendency to overwrite. Then later I cut and edit for mistakes or making the chapter more coherent. But first I freewrite. Good new term in my vocabulary.

  • Rebecca M. Douglass

    Count me another who's dubious about putting out any writing that's not thoroughly edited. Since writing is my product, that's the last thing I want to risk giving a poor impression.

    I'll vote with those who suggest making a set of questions and answers you can re-use for those who want interviews. And if any outlet asked me to make a whole photo essay, even as an unknown as I am, I would insist on being paid their going rate for that. That one really moved beyond normal to taking advantage, in my opinion.

  • Nancy K. Miller

    Thanks for your many suggestions.  It's so hard to stick to one's resolutions…even though it has become clearer and clearer to me that it is very difficult to make anything "happen" through these various venues….

    The trick would be to think "only" of oneself, regardless of outcome---a kind of Zen perversion---but it's  difficult

    when we get so caught up in drinking the Kool-Aid, and believing that if only we tried hard enough………...

  • I like the concept of 'free-writing'... as Marilyn says, it is great exercise for our writing muscles.

    I do Morning pages... long hand, stream of consciousness writing... every morning.  Morning pages are, with the exception of my journals, the only writing I do that is not edited.  Blog posts, interviews, book reviews, stories, novels, flash... my little edit monkey has a feast before any of those are unleashed on an often unforgiving public.

  • Dawn Downey

    This is a wonderful illustration of balancing marketing (exposure) and craft. The idea of skimping on the editing makes me a bit queasy. There's a huge chasm between total incoherence and polished prose. I've got lots of writing in the pipeline that's perfectly coherent, but definitely not ready for public view. Writing is my only product; it's also my most effective sales pitch. I might save time by skipping the editing in order to fulfill freebies, but I'm not sure the exposure of my less-than-best writing benefits my best for-sale writing. Readers will come across my work for the first time in many places where they don't pay, especially online. They'll likely make a judgment right there about whether they might buy my book. They have no way of knowing that I actually write better than what's reflected in the freebie. I hope I'll be brave enough to say no, if I don't have the time to do my best.

  • Catherine Hiller

    Hi Nancy,

    I like the elegance of using "freewriting" for free writing, but I have another suggestion.  Recently, I was asked to be interviewed, and I had the choice responding to written or oral questions.  I chose to talk, mainly because I spend some of my professional life asking questions (of scientists) on the telephone and wanted to experience the process from the other end of the line. In this case, the interviewer agreed to let me edit my responses -- a good idea, because after a while, the interviewer becomes "your friend" and you forget how indiscreet you are being.  In my case, I had to strike out a rather negative paragraph about my agent!  In any event, talking takes less time and is more fun than responding in writing to questions (, so next time you are asked, perhaps you can choose this option.

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Great post, Nancy. So hard to know how to ask for the money when it isn't offered or brought up as a subject, isn't it? Best of luck. In the meantime, I owe myself a few more "freewrites" a week to get my juices flowing this new year.

  • Marilyn Hammick

    I do free writing to sharpen my writing muscles, usually first thing in the morning ... Not sure I could replicate the method for others to see, but your post did make me think about how much editing I do. How many hours have I spent on revisions? Possibly I should do less when it's not vital, and possibly more when it is.... Ho hum, and thanks for the post

  • Laura Zera

    Another option could be to develop some polished answers that could be adapted and reused for various interview questions, the same way we're coached to do for job interviews. 

  • Carol Bodensteiner

    I like the idea, Nancy. Freewriting would also help me get more posts on my blog.