Can’t Distill Your Argument? 20 Minute Free Write as a Clarification Tool

Sometimes when we return to a draft, we find it difficult to follow our prose. Perhaps the argument feels jumbled, the logical flow is off, or the explanation and analysis of key terms and theory feel vague, circular, even off-topic. We can try to fix these problems by restructuring paragraphs, recasting sentences, and reverse outlining sections, but sometimes these fixes are ineffective. A 20-minute free write, which can be applied to a variety of revision needs, asks us to take a step back and explain to ourselves what we are trying to say.

You can use a free write to clarify your literature review, the argument of your paper, or even of a section. You can also use it to explain the theory undergirding your paper. The exercise below offers a structured method for doing so.

Step One: Set a timer for 20 minutes and start to write about your topic.

    • If the purpose of the free write is to capture your argumentative relationship to other scholars, it often helps to start with an account of what the other person says before turning to your response.
    • If the purpose of the free write is to explain the theoretical backbone of your paper or to clarify a section of your work that is vague and abstract, it often helps to start your free write with the words “What I really mean to say is…” The only real rule is that for 20 minutes, you do not stop writing, even if the only words that you are putting down on the page are “I don’t know, I don’t know, etc.”

Step Two: Keep writing until the time is up! The only real rule is that for 20 minutes, you do not stop writing, even if the only words that you are putting down on the page are “I don’t know, I don’t know, etc.”

The exercise will loosen up your mind and encourage you to put thoughts on paper. Often, the exercise can help you clarify your analysis, establish the structure of your argument, and even help you better understand your topic. Often, this exercise will inspire you to produce insightful and original analysis. An alternate version of this exercise is to record yourself talking out your ideas rather than writing them down. This method works particularly well for those who find it difficult to let go of self-editing even when they are just getting their thoughts out. In addition, there are apps that will transcribe a voice recording to text.


Free write of a primary text — John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition:

John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five-Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Suriman recounts the author’s experience as a mercenary in what was the Dutch colony of Surinam during the later years of the 18th century. Stedman’s mission along with his fellow soldiers was to discover, apprehend, or kill the hundreds of maroons — once-enslaved Africans who had escaped their plantations and developed a thriving society in what is the present-day Amazon jungles and forests that take up much of Surinam. Stedman was well-educated and curious and he kept a journal in which he recounted his experiences in Surinam. After he returned back to England, Stedman transformed his journal into the published narrative. Stedman’s Narrative is part of a robust culture of travel literature written by Europeans who voyaged to and lived in the Caribbean throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. But Stedman’s Narrative stands apart from many other travel narratives because of what happens when he blends elements of the novel with elements of the natural history. Basically, Stedman quite actively — he even admits that he is doing it — tries to fashion his character after Fielding’s Tom Jones. He writes scenes and his experiences in Surinam so that they resemble specific scenes in Jones. There are countless moments like this. But there is a problem inherent in Stedman’s project: Jones is supposed to be two things: funny and sympathetic to the downtrodden. Jones gets into ridiculous scrapes — scrapes, which should leave him dead and destitute — but since this is fiction, Jones always gets out of them. But with Stedman, this is his real-life experience and so he just suffers. In other words, we can laugh at Jones’ experiences because we know he’ll be ok. We cannot laugh at Stedman because we know he is suffering. So then, this makes the society Stedman circulates in — plantation society — not seem like a farce, but instead like the real-live inhumane shit-show that it is. It uncovers plantation society for what it is. Moreover, Jones is supposed to be a farce, showing the ridiculousness of high society and social classes. Stedman tries to do the same, but it is not ridiculous. Instead, high society plantation owners are shown for who they truly are — murderous evil people — and Stedman also starts to break down the very basis of plantation society — the practice of enslaving Africans. Simply by following the traditions of the novel, Stedman begins to suggest that enslaved Afircans and white colonists are basically the same, they are all human beings and this destabilitizes the plantation system. The other issue here is that Jones is always sympathetic to the downtrodden and he tries to help them. Stedman is too — he feels sorry for enslaved Africans and at times even for the maroons, he does not want to return them to plantations. But in the 18th century, the notion of sympathy means that you can identify with the other, you can only feel sympathetic if you put yourself in the other person’s place and feel what they feel. And if you can admit likeness of feeling, that means you recognize likeness between yourself and the other. When Stedman, then, admits sympathy with elsnaved Africans and with maroons, he is admitting likeness between them, and in doing so he defies the entire plantation system since the plantation system is based on the idea that enslaved Africans are not human, and thus, you cannot feel sympathy for them.

Another problem is added to all of this because since Stedman is writing about the Caribbean, he must — by dint of tradition — include the natural history in his work. And so we see Stedman describing the plants and animals he sees as he trecks through the wilderness. But remember, Stedman is still trying to write is narrative as if it was a novel. And so a few odd things happen. First of all, Stedman does not organize his specimens as most naturalists would grouping them into species or at least animals and plants. Instead, he describes specimens as he comes across them during his travels. So his description of a tarantula does not come after his description of a mosquito, but only when Stedman comes across the tarantula. By putting specimens in the service of the narrative and by putting himself within his descriptions of the specimens, for Stedman always has feelings about each specimen he encounters, Stedman animates the specimens, allowing them to impact him. Because like any natural history, specimens symbolize taboo subjects – usually enslaved Africans — then stedman’s animate specimens don’t just symbolize enslaved Africans, they sympolize animate enslaved Africans. And because these specimens are allowed to act, so are the enslaved Africans and as such, Stedman loses control of them and they start to demonstrate autonomy and violence. In fact, there are even moments where we see enslaved Africans interacting with specimens and teaming up with them. And at these moments, when animal and human are animate, are allowed to act and react, and are impacting Stedman and he is not controlling them, this is where Stedman does some dangerous work for he demonstrates that in the wilderness, enslaved Africans and animals really have power, they threaten violence, and they have autonomy. He suggests that enslaved Africans, unlike the European colonists, are the ones with power over the land, and have the power to use the land to completely overthrow the plantation system. Porosity is dangerouns it destabilizes. And it is through violence that porosity becomes apparent and obvious. In addition, during these natural history interludes, or digressions, Stedman again expresses sympathy, not just for enslaved Africans but for some animals, particularly a monkey. So again, now Stedman is destabilizing the boundary between human and animal, showing how porous everything is.

So the main argument of this chapter is that it is impossible to use traditional novelistic forms for literature about the Caribbean, because in doing so, authors will destabilize the plantation system, show all of the faults inherent in it, and thus, show the entire colonial project and the British Empire for what it is. Not some great project that demonstrates man’s achievement, but rather a project in which greed and depravity allows people to subjugate others.


  • As you can see, the voice that comes across in a free write is more casual and talky than rigorously academic. This author even included vulgarity. This is a good thing because it shows that the writer is not self-editing but is just getting their thoughts out. In other words, the writer is not thinking about word choice and sentence construction but instead, is only concerned with putting thoughts to paper.
  • In a similar vein, note that the writer did not stop to correct misspellings and formatting infelicities nor did the writer cite anything or add notes/footnotes. Doing a free-write means that the author is not worried about the cosmetic and technical aspects of the writing. Instead, the writer is simply concerned with getting all the thoughts out and moving on.
  • The author used this free write to unravel why the text in question is problematic. They began with broad strokes — a description of the text. But as the author described the text, they began to identify the problems with the text, and eventually, this led the author to start formulating an argument.
  • Sometimes, one can transform a free write into an outline for a paper, a chapter, or a section. With the above example, the author could transform the free-write into an outline simply by moving the argument from the end of the text to the beginning. Then the author would determine section breaks by grouping paragraphs together by theme.

This exercise can also help writers organize or think through several threads that all contribute to the main claim. With a free write, a writer can unravel each thread and explore how they contribute or build to the main claim. In addition, this exercise gives writers the space to think through each thread of their argument without feeling compelled to connect any single thread to another. Writing is a form of thinking. By setting aside uninterrupted time to write without the constrictions of crafting elegant prose or well-constructed paragraphs, a writer is allowing themselves the time and space to think.

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message