Is “Just Get Words Down” Good Advice When You’re Struggling to Write?

When you’re struggling to get an essay written, should you just write whatever comes into your head? Does the advice to write first and think later really help?

James Hayton isn’t a fan.

My main issue with chucking out words in a rush is when there is a lack of context. Freedom to write anything in a quick burst has a time and a place.

When you’re faced with a blank page, you may be tempted to start writing, no matter what the outcome.

Free writing can work out, but there are caveats:

  • It depends on what you do before and after the free writing – Just like an all-nighter only allows a single draft with simultaneous editing (if you have the time for that at all!), rattling off an essay in a flash without giving it much further attention is a mistake. Rapid writing of a first draft (or any piece of text) should only ever be considered a rough start. If you lose the drive to work with the text after your initial approach, rapid writing is not for you.
  • If you don’t have enough understanding or knowledge beforehand, the rapid writing won’t help – You need to be clued up on the subject you’re writing about. A lack of plan means a lack of content, no matter how quickly or slowly you choose to write.
    If I had to write an essay on the fifteen century, or astrophysics, or igneous rocks, or symbolism in Shakespeare’s tragedies, I would be crazy to blast off some random text in hope that something may work. I don’t know about these topics enough just to start writing. In fact, I’d be unhappy writing an academic text in any field straight away, even if I knew a lot about it. At best, I’d make a few brief notes on what I aim to argue alongside the points I wish to make to support the argument as well as discussion of counter arguments and potential issues that arise.
  • The individual isn’t equipped (for whatever reason) to edit the content once it’s written – This can pose a problem when half the material is rubbish or guesswork or errors or a combination of all these things. Without a clear grasp of how and why you need to edit, a bunch of text spewed out as quickly as possible is not a good place to begin.
  • Should you be writing down whatever comes to your head, or making brief notes and outlines based on what you wish to include in the work? – Preparation is key. The advice to ‘just write’ is problematic because people can assume it means to write stuff without a plan. Even a bare minimum can make a huge impact. Think before you type.

I see no problem with getting the words written down when you are confident that you have editing capabilities (and are not just looking to hit a certain number of words). Likewise, it’s no big deal when you already have a clear idea of what you want to say. As Hayton explains, the writing needs to be tight. Just one misplaced observation or assumption can drastically alter the tone, impact and clarity of your writing. However, the first draft doesn’t have to be a place for that.

Any piece of advice, no matter how popular, is not going to work for everyone. And just because ‘everyone’ does something, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Getting the words down fast shouldn’t be recommended to everyone, but I’m equally sure that it is a mistake to recommend it to no one.

What do you do?