Timed Writing Workshop — Freeing Up the Subconscious in Writing

I am indebted to Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, for what has become one of the staples of my own writing practice. Though I don’t do timed writing quite the way she says most of the time, I still find it essential to cutting through the murkiness of my own mind when I’m stuck, and for sharpening images while I’m working on a book.

Here is timed writing my way.

I prefer working at a keyboard to writing in longhand, so I almost always type my timed writings directly into the computer. If you don’t like doing raw material at a keyboard, try it anyway for a while. You can always go to a notebook and pen when you’re waiting at the dentist’s office—timed writing is much more interesting than reading the June, 1974 issue of Field and Stream that he still has in there. (After you’ve read the Patrick F. McManus article, anyway.)

In either case, sit. Note the date and the time you start at the top of the page, and your topic, whatever it might be. As soon as you’ve done this, throw words on the page. Do not stop to correct typos or change words, do not second-guess the images spilling out onto the screen, do not stop to think of what comes next. If ideas follow that make no real sense, or if words hit the page that seem unconnected to anything, that’s fine. Let them. If you write things about people that you know they would never want anyone to know, that’s fine too. You don’t ever have to show anyone your timed writings. Natalie Goldberg says, “Keep your hand moving.” If you’re typing, it’s ‘keep your fingers moving,’ but either way, write steadily for the time limit you’ve set for yourself. Try for at least ten minutes—you can usually get into serious meat in that length of time. Go for half an hour sometime, or for an hour straight just to see what it feels like.

This is regular timed writing, (the link leads to examples that will give you an idea what to expect) and Goldberg recommends that you do it every day. I do my novel pages every day, so I only do timed writing when I’m having trouble with my pages, or when what’s hitting my pages feels stiff and stilted, or false.

If you’re doing timed writing in that latter instance, you do it a bit differently. Directly on the page where you’re working (or on a separate sheet of paper if you aren’t doing your book or story on a computer) write down the problem that your story is giving you, in three or four words. Drop down a line, check the time, and timed-write on that problem for ten minutes. Go get a drink of water when you’re done, give yourself a few minutes to relax, then sit down and read what you wrote. More often than not, when I do this, I find the solution to the problem in the block of timed writing.

Finally, here is a partial list of the topics that I write on when I’m doing regular timed writing. I hope these spur your ideas, and get you writing. (Feel free to cut and paste these to get yourself started).

Some Topics for Timed Writing

The past

The future











A color

A smell



I fear …

I love …

I hate …

I want …



I Remember





What feels good

What feels bad


Who I am

Who I wish I were

What I am

What I wish I were

Who I was

What I was

NOTE: I offer a comprehensive introductory class based on my fiction-writing and publishing experience. It’s called How to Write Flash Fiction that Doesn’t SUCK, and it is no-strings-attached FREE, including a private classroom, downloadable lessons, and a friendly, well-moderated forum where you can work with other students. I hope you’ll try it out.


2 responses to “Timed Writing Workshop — Freeing Up the Subconscious in Writing”

  1. Lynn O'Brien Avatar
    Lynn O’Brien

    Your first topic of A child fearful of something (or however it was phrased) was a similar exercise, I think. I love topics given by others and then writing the first thing that comes into my head. Usually it makes perfect sense. I have been told I could talk at length about any given topic. When I read about your muse I related to it. I call it my subconscious, though not personified. My subconscious notices things I don’t always see initially. But If needed, I can recall them later. I seem to have a photographic memory. But we all should realize that much communication, for example, is not the words we hear. We need to read accurately all the things we see. Maybe it will only come as a gut feeling. We will be able to notice when people’s words do not line up with their body language. We will know when sadness is coming out as anger, when criticism stems from jealousy, when another’s mood is not due to us but something else we don’t know about. Intuition is very real. When I have a problem with a story plot line or anything else problematic, I think about it initially then rely on my subconscious (muse) to reveal itself when a brilliant idea or solution has been dreamed up. Unfortunately I do not have time for aimless writing. By aimless I mean unconstructive, though I get it that sharpening the subconscious in this way may be constructive. I schedule and drop things I can such as housework (only necessities and surface stuff gets done) writing which is not on my future book and most relaxing except if it is active such as watching TV while mending, doing a craft, folding washing, doing a budget etc. I totally agree that being connected with ones subconscious is helpful, uses our minds creatively and is a great problem solving tool. Another example (from someone else) is when we write and later ask questions such as, why did we say this character had on a red shirt? Is it relevant? Pays to leave it in because later down the track the fact that it is red will be relevant and necessary. We just don’t know it yet. The subconscious already knew.


    Thanks for sharing this resource Holly.

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