lessons from a distance

lessons from a distance

Freewriting With Sentence Starts: A Lesson With Francine Witte


Freewriting, as I’m defining it here, is writing, without stopping, about anything that comes into your mind for a short period of time (2-5 minutes.) The without stopping part is important because that’s where the uncensored thoughts come out. This is where you discover what you didn’t even know what you were thinking about. It’s quite fascinating.

Fewer than two minutes doesn’t really tap in to the subconscious. More than five and, well, your hand gets tired.

I do think it’s more helpful to freewrite in longhand, but if the keyboard works for you, then great.

What on earth will you write about?

This is usually the problem. What on earth will you write about for 2-5 minutes?

You can, of course, pick a topic. Roberta Allen does this. In her book, Fast Fiction, she has a list of single-word prompts. Write a story about a key, might be one. Set the timer for five minutes.

I’ve used this many, many times, myself, having studied extensively with Roberta.

I added something else when I was teaching high school in NYC. I found that for teenagers, they needed a hook. A sentence they HAD to finish. Roberta did this, too, and I also found this helpful.

I will also note that I am directing this towards poetry, as poetry does not require a narrative arc.

How to begin to begin

This works very well with a writing partner.

Make a list of ten phrases that need to be finished. An example would be, “I knew he wasn’t coming back because…”

There should be an emotional charge in the sentence. Something urgent. But acutally anything to get you started. Example: “I went to the store and bought…” might bring up more interesting results than you would think.

If you want to use your own phrases, great. If not, trade them with your partner.

Now write for 2-5 minutes. Don’t stop. Don’t think about it. Don’t worry if you change the subject. Just keep going.

With the popularity of ZOOM and FACEBOOK MESSENGER chats, this can be done with a partner at the same time.

After you’ve written

Read what you’ve written out loud, even to yourself. Don’t censor yourself as you go along.

What were the strongest words, ideas, etc.

If you are working with a partner, ask him or her to say what was strongest. What images or ideas stood out?

If you are working alone, underline the strongest words, images, ideas.


Now, rewrite what you just wrote using ONLY the strong ideas and images. Cut away any filler.

You may find that you now have a very short paragraph. That’s fine.

Now you have a new block of writing to look at, either alone or with a partner.

Don’t worry about the sense of it. Worry about the senses of it.

Look at anyplace you that the five senses are used. What can you see, hear, touch, taste, smell, in the paragraph?

If nothing, where could the senses be used?

Get concrete. Did you use the word house? What kind of a house? Brick, white clapboard. Ranch?

Add those details.


Take your very sensory, very concrete paragraph and break it into lines and stanzas. Make it look like a poem. Somehow, this little psychological trick really works.

Last edit

Now, look for the clarity and logic in what you’ve written. It doesn’t have to be something you can put into words, but it should also not be obscure.

That said, a poem doesn’t have to make perfect sense. Let the reader make connections.

If you don’t have a partner, another reader will be helpful.

Some starters to get you started

I saw the candle burning, and I knew…

The last time I saw him, he was….

I never told you, but I …

If I had three wishes they would be…

I know it’s too late, but still…

There was a stranger in the mirror and she…

Good luck and happy freewriting!

Francine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections, Café Crazy and The Theory of Flesh from Kelsay Books. Her flash fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologized in the most recent New Micro (W.W. Norton) Her novella-in-flash, The Way of the Wind has just been published by Ad Hoc Fiction, and her full-length collection of flash fiction, Dressed All Wrong for This was recently published by Blue Light Press. She lives in New York City.