Automatic writing: an exercise to help you be a more efficient writer

If you’re anything like me, your starting point is perfection. But striving for perfection stops me from getting everything I know onto the page. I get hung up on how to articulate a single thought, or getting details like names, dates, and places right before moving on. I am constantly starting and stopping like I’m in peak hour traffic and rarely get a good run. In a single moment, I’m trying to think of the story I want to tell, what to write to tell the story, and how to write it so it has impact. That’s alot of pressure on my sentences.

Here’s where automatic writing comes in.

Automatic Writing

Automatic writing is a 10 minute, generative writing exercise that challenges you to write first and edit later. The output of this exercise is not a refined, articulate report, rather the starting point for the report, presentation etc. This exercise helps me because when I write, my thoughts are jumping all over the place, sparking bits and pieces of the story while I write. What comes out is messy and absolutely not linear, and I love it. It helps me extract what I know about a topic, rather than tell a coherent story about a topic.

I learnt this technique at The Creativity Workshop in New York, and have since used it to build up a conference presentation, write blog posts and as a meditative activity. In this post, I will share how I use Automatic Writing in a business context, rather than a creative context.

3 things you must do

Automatic writing has three very simple rules that MUST be followed to be effective:

  1. Your eyes must be closed when you write – this actively prevents you from editing what you write
  2. You must write faster than you can think – keeps you focused on the process of writing, rather than what is written
  3. No computers, pen and paper only – pen and paper means no distractions.

Doing these three things, and only these three things forces you to separate writing from editing. Writing in this way will not give you a final output, but it will fill a blank page and give you something to edit, refocus and refine. It is ultimately the first step, and this can sometimes be the hardest.

How to do it

1. Start with something simple

Beginning anything you want to write about is daunting. There are so many themes to cover, anecdotes to share, points to be argued – so where to start? I can get paralysed thinking about what I want to say, so I always start with the ‘Five Y’s – who, what, when, where, why’ and create a question that I need to answer to tell my story.

The first time I practiced Automatic Writing outside of The Creativity Workshop, I was writing a speech for UX Australia on storytelling. I didn’t know what I wanted to say about storytelling, but I did have something to share. To figure out what I wanted to talk about, I gave some structure to the exercise. I gave myself five focusing sentences that would guide my thinking:

  1. Who have I told stories to?
  2. What do I know about telling stories?
  3. When have I used stories to communicate with people?
  4. Why do I tell stories?
  5. How do I tell stories?
Answering these simple questions became a starting point for my presentation.

2. Just get it out

After recognising the broad areas I could gather thoughts on, I grabbed a pen and paper, closed my eyes, asked myself ‘who have I told stories to?’, then wrote as fast as I could and for as long as I could (I will refer to this as a sprint – 10 minutes is a great place to start).

I literally couldn’t see what I was writing, or what I had written. Writing like this dramatically shifted my focus to the thoughts and ideas in my mind rather than their structure and articulation. Usually, when I see what’s written it’s too easy to pause, re-read, edit and perfect. I’ve been warned to not do this – to write a draft first and edit later – but in practice, it’s alot harder to exercise.

But two simple rules worked for me – 1. close your eyes 2. write faster than you can think – doing this made it impossible for me to write something perfect. Similar to a sketch, automatic writing generates content that is imperfect but representative of an idea, and that’s the first step. At the end of a sprint, you’ll find that what you’ve written is messy and all over the place, but that’s ok. It’s ok because all the pieces of your story are there, and you can edit and organise the pieces later.

3.  Circle and repeat

One sprint isn’t always enough. For me, Automatic Writing has the most value when it is repeated. After a sprint, not everything on the page will be gold. You will need to re-read what you’ve written and circle words or sentences that are interesting to you. These words and sentences then become the focus for the next sprint.

Below is a photo of my workbook from the Creativity Workshop that shows the output of this exercise. Hopefully you get a sense for what this might look like for you when you do it!


4. Now, try it for yourself!

Remember, the goal of the exercise is to extract what you know and get it onto a page. You could choose to do multiple sprints that build on each other, or choose to do a sprint on a completely different focus area. How you use and adapt this exercise is completely up to you. So let’s start!

  1. Grab a notebook and a pen
  2. At the top of your page, write down a word or sentence that represents what you’re thinking about right now
  3. Give yourself 10 minutes, close your eyes, and write (don’t stop)
  4. When your 10 minutes is up, re-read what you’ve written and circle, highlight or underline any sentences or words that are interesting to you
  5. Pick one of the words or sentences that you marked and write it at the top of a new page
  6. Give yourself 10 minutes, close your eyes, and write (don’t stop)
  7. Repeat this process as many times as you wish, the goal of the exercise is simply to start!

When Automatic Writing ends and editing begins

To tell a coherent story, you need to have the pieces of your story – the mission, the actors, the settings… So for me, Automatic Writing ends when I feel I have those pieces fleshed out. Editing begins when I want to start crafting how I want to tell the story. How you interpret or use this exercise is totally up to you. The only things to keep in mind is that this exercise is intended to kickstart the writing process, not replace it.
Like I said, I learnt this technique at The Creativity Workshop. I have written a short post called Reconnecting with Creativity where I reflect on what I learnt about creativity.
1 Comment
  • Sujatha raghavan

    April 8, 2017 at 7:03 pm Reply

    Thank you. I could relate to what you said about taking the first step on writing. I have been into writing from my childhood and I am 53 years old now. Even though I just choose a topic and write all that comes to my mind. Sometimes I wonder if it was written by me. I have never closed my eyes. Will try in future. If you have the time, would appreciate reading my blog Thanks for your tips.

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