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Developing Free Right, the Online Free Writing Tool- Jessica Sumalpong

Page history last edited by jasumalpong@umail.ucsb.edu 7 years, 9 months ago

Developing Free Right, the Online Free Writing Tool


By Jessica Sumalpong, Team Free Right



            With the aim of getting people of varying backgrounds to participate in the writing process, the Free Right team sought to create an online tool which would bring the exercise of free writing into a digital medium with additional benefits from its traditional practices. In order to improve upon these traditional practices, the project members conducted research on the history, definitions, and proposed benefits of free writing. Based on this research, the group determined that a successful online free writing tool would seek to free the user from as much self-consciousness towards his or her work as possible. To accomplish this, the group developed their tool with several key constraints in order to hopefully encourage users to write freely. After conducting testing and surveying test subjects, with the desire for additional testing time and constraints asides, the team ultimately decided that Free Right, the online free writing tool, fulfilled their aims.



            The Free Right team’s research began with first defining the practice of free writing. To this end, an excerpt from Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers entitled Freewriting proved incredibly useful. The practice, as he describes it, is “simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty)” with the only real requirement being “that you never stop”. Given how starkly different this practice is from conventional writing methods, there is a certain chaotic and frenzied nature intrinsic to free writing, which causes some critics to doubt its usefulness. However, Elbow claims that free writing’s usefulness lies in that, in practice, it does not allow one to edit his or her writing. According to Elbow, editing is “usually necessary if we want to end up with something satisfactory” but when “that editing goes on at the same time as producing”, one may end up engaging in a kind of “compulsive, premature editing” that stifles one’s written voice with “interruptions, changes, and hesitations between the consciousness and the page”.


            Works from Mark Reynolds, Dorothea Brande, and Tom Romano also shed light on the origins, aims and importance of free writing. In his article Freewriting’s Origin, Reynolds names free writing one of “the most widely used prewriting exercises”, claiming that teachers “like its simplicity, and students appreciate its usefulness in generating new and unexpected ideas”. With its roots in the 1960s student-centered education movement, “which survived its own period and the subsequent back-to-the-basics backlash of the 1970s”, free writing has gone by multiple names such as “spontaneous writing, stream-of-consciousness writing… shotgun writing and intensive writing”. According to Reynolds, however, free writing as it would be known today is largely based upon ideas from Dorothea Brande’s 1934 book Becoming a Writer.


            Brande suggests that the practice of free writing should work to “lead the writer into close touch with his-her unconscious, help the writer to develop healthy writing habits… and guide the writer to freedom from all forms of writer’s block.” With this in mind, Brande discusses what she calls the writer’s dual nature, saying that a writer possesses both a conscious side, “the craftsman and the critic”, and an unconscious side, “the artist’s side… the emotional and childlike side”. Brande argues a writer should seek to “hitch… [his-her] writing arm” to this unconscious side and that the practice of regular free writing may help one in this endeavor, resulting in a work with a “fresh unforced tone which is striking”.


            In The Power of Voice, Tom Romano discusses the academic applications of free writing and how the regular exercise helps students develop the “fresh unforced tone” Brande names. He describes how middle school language arts teacher Linda Rief utilizes quickwrites in her class in order to “teach her students to launch their voices and outrun the inner censor”, a practice which could be adopted by other educators to similarly help their students develop and demonstrate their own voice in their writing. Rief provides her students with some sort of prompt, often based on literature from the course, has her students quickwrite on the prompt for a few minutes, and then eventually has each student pick one of their quickwrites to develop into a longer piece of work. Once these students “have words on the page, developing those words into longer pieces is not as intimidating as facing a blank sheet of paper”. In this way, Ried promotes that “frequent quickwrites build students’ confidence, develop their written fluency, and bring out every student’s inner writer”. 


Interpretation and Application of Research

            While the Free Right team’s research extended beyond these four works, it is from these works that their concluding sentiments on their combined research can perhaps be best understood. From Elbow’s excerpt, the team decided upon their definition of free writing as writing continuously for a set period of time without stopping or editing. Reynolds and Romano both offered free writing as in-class prewriting exercises for the students while Romano expanded upon this idea to insist that it helped students develop his-her written voice. Brande’s discussion of letting one’s unconscious mind spill forth whilst free writing to produce fresh tones similarly spoke to the importance of developing one’s written voice. Also keeping in mind Elbow’s view that free writing seeks to end the staleness in written voice created by simultaneous production and editing, the team decided that in addition to creating a tool that would promote writing, the tool itself must in some way further promote the development of written voice in its users, likely through limiting the user’s ability to edit his-her content.


Methods: The Creation and Development of Free Right

            The Free Right team had several discussions regarding what type of unique features they believed would be best to include in the tool in order to achieve their set goals. Initially, many ideas came out but due to time constraints, the team knew several of these proposed features would simply not be possible. Similarly, whether or not certain features could be analyzed properly during the allotted time for this project following subject testing of the tool. Ultimately, all factors considered, the team decided upon the following features as most important.


1) What is written in Free Right cannot be edited or revised: Again, proponents of free writing argue that its value lies in its aim to force the user to ignore his or her impulse to edit as he or she writes, which then allows one’s ideas to flow freely without the threat of self-censorship (Elbow). However, while one may still be able ignore the proposed rule and edit anyway during a traditional free writing exercise, Free Right would completely eliminate the option of returning to edit one’s previous work. This would ideally force the user to focus entirely on their thoughts and not their properness or grammatical correctness of his or her writing.


2) Free Right only displays two words at a time AND all other text is hidden: The team hypothesized that displaying only two words at a time would most greatly reduce the amount of self-editing that can take place while also not totally disorienting the user. Similarly, they reasoned that hiding past text would decrease both the impulse to go back and edit as well as the self-consciousness towards one’s writing that impulse may create.

3) Free Right’s timer feature: Free Right timer— spanning three, seven, and fifteen minutes—would keep the free write constrained to a set time which the user may determine before beginning the exercise. This was thought to not only arguably increase the effectiveness of the exercise but also improve the potential for the Free Right tool to be used more routinely.


            With these constraints in mind, one team member oversaw the programming and building of the free write tool, leaving the other three members to conduct further research, refine their articulation of their goals and purpose, and finally conduct testing of the finished tool.


Testing Free Right

            While building the Free Right tool alone with certain objectives in mind could have served as a sole end-goal for this project, given the time allowed, the team decided it best to conduct testing on the finished tool. The team created two surveys for test subjects to answer, a pre-survey and post-survey, which would hopefully answer whether or not subjects found the tool useful in the way the team intended.

The pre-survey, administered before testing, contained relatively basic questions that would give the team knowledge on their subject’s dispositions towards writing and prior knowledge of free writing. The pre-survey questions were as follows.


1)    Do you consider yourself to be a writer?

2)    Have you ever free written before?

3)    If so, do you still free write and how often?

4)    In your own words, define free writing.

5)    Do you think free writing is beneficial?

6)    What do you find difficult about free writing?


Test subjects were then instructed to complete three different free writing sessions using the Free Right tool. Each session varied in length with the first lasting three minutes, the second for seven minutes, and the third for fifteen minutes. Additionally, each session had its own unique prompt, though testers were told that following the prompt was optional. For the first session the prompt read, “What’s your favorite book? Why?”; the second, “If you had a time machine, what would you go back and change? Why? Where in the future would you go?”; and the third, “Write about something you think about way too much”.


The post-survey, administered after testing, followed a similar format with questions designed to answer specific quality questions regarding Free Right. The post-survey questions were as follows.


1)    What time limit did you like best?

2)    Did the beep incentivize your writing? (The “beep” in question was a feature that was not implemented in Free Right, but the survey was not updated to reflect this fact)

3)    Did you find the prompts helpful?

4)    Did you find this free writing program useful?

5)    Is there anything you would change about the program?

6)    Do you think you’ll use more of your personal time to write?


Due to ethical and legality issues, the exact findings of the testing can not be posted in this public report. (Like my teammates, however, I will send the information to you privately as proof of completion.) However, the surveys indicated that subjects mostly identified as writers, largely favored the seven-minute session, and most subjects finding the tool effective in one way or another.


Concluding Thoughts

            Team Free Right team sought to develop a digital free writing tool that could produce all of the practice’s proposed benefits in addition to enhancing the effectiveness of the exercise overall with the end goal of encouraging those capable, regardless of background, to participate in writing.  Utilizing knowledge of free writing gained through research, the team decided upon which features they believed would best bring about their desired results and features they believed they could reasonably test and implement into the tool given the time constraint. Ideally, this time constraint, which limited both the development and testing of the tool, would not exist and allow for more time to turn Free Right into an internet-accessible tool with features such as user-customization, enhanced aesthetics, and a larger range of prompts. Given the time constraint, however, based on functionality and user feedback, the Free Right project proved successful in accomplishing its goal of being a free writing tool with unique aspects and benefits to set it apart from its traditional counterpart.


Works Cited

Brande, Dorothea.Becoming a Writer. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1981. Print.

Elbow, Peter. "Freewriting." Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. pp. 1-7. Print. 

Reynolds, Mark. "Make Free Writing More Productive." College Composition and Communication 39.1 (1988): 81-82. JSTOR. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/357825?ref=no-x-route:52267fcff6c139e8c38cf1cf8e335171>.

Romano, Tom. "The Power of Voice." EBSCO Host. Educational Leadership, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.           <http%3A%2F%2Fweb.b.ebscohost.com.proxy.library.ucsb.edu%3A2048%2Fehost%2Fpdfviewer%2Fpdfviewer%3Fsid%3Dd528e34b-6e79-4f3d-a155-3abd5fe14cde%2540sessionmgr112%26vid%3D10%26hid%3D101>.



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