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 sequence 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.

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

Step 1: Set a timer for 20 minutes and start to write about your topic. Remember, the voice that comes across in a free write is more casual and talky than rigorously academic. You should not be thinking about word choice, sentence construction, misspellings, formatting, citations, footnotes, notes, etc. Your only concern is to put your thoughts to paper. In other words, resist the urge to self-edit and just get your thoughts out. A few considerations are as follows:

    • 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…” Another option is to start by summarizing the bit of primary source—data, text, theory, etc. Then, use the exercise of summarizing to jump into your thoughts, perhaps by finding a problem you want to describe and clarify.

Step 2: 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.”

Step 3: 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.

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. Sometimes, one can transform a free write into an outline for a paper, a chapter, or a section. Often, this exercise will inspire you to produce insightful and original analysis. 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.

If you find free writing useful in finding purpose and meaning in your drafting see: “Are you providing too much context? 10-minute free write as a tool to help you summarize.”