#WritingPrompt: Loop Writing

Loop writing is a technique developed by Peter Elbow that involves underlining striking or important lines. Then those lines become starting points for going even deeper into a topic to gain new insights. It is a great way to develop your line of thinking on any topic, but especially useful when you aren’t sure what direction you want your writing to take.

 

picture of purple light swirls

Inevitably you will write a lot of material that won’t be useful, but loop writing can unearth insights and innovative phrasing that would never make it to the page otherwise.

 

Depending on where you are out in your writing process, you may or may not need to do the first step.

 

1. Make an inventory of topics by listing or making a cluster diagram. Then freewrite for 3-5 minutes on a few promising topics.

 

2. Pick the topic that seems to have the most potential. Freewrite for at least 15 minutes on everything you already know about the topic.

 

3. Read what you just wrote. Underline what you feel is the most important line.

 

4. Use that line as the start of another freewrite. Write for 5-15 more minutes.

 

5. This process can be repeated indefinitely.

 

Loop writing is also an awesome technique to getting the writer to make connections between seemingly unrelated topics. Happy writing!!!

 

What techniques do you use to generate ideas and deeply explore potential topics?

 

 

Image Credit: Purple Fractal by Steve Gibson

Author: Jeri Walker

Freelance Editor. Affordable Rates. Incomparable Quality. Make Every Word Count. Author of short stories and creative nonfiction.

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77 Comments

  1. Jeri — I think loop writing is probably a variation on mind mapping. I’ve tried that a couple of times but it didn’t seem to work for me. I’ll try loop writing – always looking for new creative approaches. Thanks.

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    • Jeannette, I don’t take to mapping/clustering very well, but I do better with loop writing because it’s in paragraph form.

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  2. I love this suggestion. I will use this. I am not a trained writer. My sum total in writing has been in the business world where reports or recommendations for something new were done in a very formal and formulated way. Blogging has changed that and I now am writing in a way I never thought I would and it is quite an adventure.

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    • Susan, and just think how blogging has added a whole new level to your writing capabilities. It’s given you the chance to try entirely new things and find what works best for you to get new modes of writing done.

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  3. I love free-writing, so loop-writing seems like a natural next step. I’ve used something similar with free-writing trying to write a poem. It filters down the important aspects. But I really like this idea for prose. Thanks for the tip Jeri.

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    • AK, that’s interesting that you’ve applied such an approach to poetry. When it comes to writing poems, I’m hard-pressed to think of many freewriting I’ve done to coax the poem along. I guess I reserve freewriting for prose, but probably because I write more prose than poetry.

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  4. What a great way to overcome writer’s block! I’ll often just start writing with just a vague notion of what I want to say – this seems like a more focused approach. Writing exercises are always appreciated. Love the image, as well.

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    • Krystyna, I do tend to gravitate toward focused freewrites rather than anything goes since I’m such an organized person 😉

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  5. I just stumbled upon your blog. Firstly, I have to say thank you for the fabulous insight into the writing loop. I’ve been struggling with my own Young Adult novel, and I hope this exercise helps me get past the writer’s block.

    Secondly, This is a great site you’ve got going. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts. After I post this comment, I intend to subscribe to your RSS feed. Thanks for writing.

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    • Sarah-Ann, It’s always great to hear an exercise I post may prove helpful. I have a stockpile of them from my teaching days, and I’ve definitely had to put them to use as I work my way through drafting my first novel.

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  6. Very interesting, but when do you know how to come out of the loop. Seems like it could be never ending.

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    • TB, loop writing can be potentially endless, but I usually just set an arbitrary finishing point where I will stop of 30 minutes or so. Though if I get on a roll the longest I’ve ever written using this process is around three hours. The potential for unearthing new insights is so great. It can be addicting.

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  7. I can initially recognize a sort of inductive reasoning leading the first steps of the writing process here…Going from the general to the particular
    and vice versa in numbers # 3 and # 4…
    I will keep this exercise in mind, for sure… Very useful way to collect random things and provide them with an inner, coherent order… From Chaos comes Light!… Best wishes, dear Jeri Aquileana 😀

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    • Aqui, you hit the nail on the head. This form of freewriting is a spectacular way to bring order to chaos that can be the early stages of writing about most topics.

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  8. I’ve not heard of this Jeri but it sounds like a great exercise! I’ll give it a go and thanks for the suggestion:)

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  9. Peter Elbow?! At the sight of his name, I was overwhelmed with memories of the six-week teaching assistantship “boot camp” I went through the summer of 1990. Elbow was the rage of my professors and fellow grad students. I vaguely remember loop writing, but probably because that one semester of teaching first-year composition was rather traumatic for me, much of it I’ve tried to forget 😉

    Thank you for sharing this and your previous post. These brainstorming activities are great for generating ideas for any kind of writing!

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    • Marie, it’s great I can count on you to share in these ties to the rhetoric and comp field. Amazingly enough, my first-year of teaching college comp was bearable enough. I didn’t get shredded alive until my first year of teaching high school!

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      • Ouch! High school? I don’t think I’d ever have thick enough skin for that. First-year comp was hard enough being the class was at 2 pm Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It was the Fall semester and the university’s claim to fame was not academics, it was football. Every Friday afternoon only about 1/3 of the class showed up. I gave them extra credit for the effort 😉 What I really enjoyed was working in the Reading/Writing Center. Tutoring one-on-one was fun because the majority of those students actually wanted (and appreciated) help with their writing. Even doctoral students came to the Center and eventually I built a word-of-mouth freelance editing business that gave me a little cash flow through my own graduate days. Some good memories there :)

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  10. One thing I’m thinking about doing to generate new topic ideas for my blog is to go back over my posts and get the secondary subject in them. Of course, I’ve kind of done this already with a few of the entries but it may be good to make it a real project.

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    • Glynis, that would be great to turn your idea into a real project. This goes to show many of us engage in looping writing without calling it by that name. To dig into secondary topics to mine for new material is very much a tried and true part of the writing process.

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  11. This is a great writing exercise Jeri, particularly for poetry actually. But any prose will benefit. It really forces to sort out whats important, and it’s surprising how obvious the places to underline become. Thanks for this reminder and the links:-)

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    • A.K., the strong lines really do stand out when going back over the passages. In a way, picking strong and/or intriguing lines is a great way to keep motivated and find new things to say. Too often, it can be easy to talk one’s self out of sticking with a topic.

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  12. It sounds a little like mind mapping for writing? But I think it goes deeper here. Between the idea I picked up from AK’s blog this morning and now this one, I’m feeling almost loopy. Seriously this all sounds fun. Thanks Jeri.

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    • Patricia, yes it is a bit like mind mapping, but the picking of solid lines as new starting points allows a writer to go much deeper. Hahah. It’s great to hear both mine and A.K.’s post have have left you feeling a bit loopy 😉

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  13. I’ve not heard of loop writing before, but it sounds like an interesting technique. I will try it. I’ve done mind mapping/clustering with word associations before. Sometimes that has worked for me, but not always. I think the loop writing would take me a little deeper. In addition to helping a writer with ideas and making connections, it sounds like this could be a good therapeutic tool for dealing with emotions and stresses through journaling.

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    • Donna, loop writing does indeed lend itself to dealing with emotions and stresses though journaling. And thank you for the reminder. I think I am going to give it a try in my personal journal at some point this week.

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  14. Your technique is a bit like Natalie Goldberg.

    You really should teach a writing class, Jeri!! LoLLLLL.

    You’d kick serious aaaaaaaaass. xx

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    • Kim, how we love Natalie Goldberg, eh? I just might be teaching college comp again come fall. Time will tell.

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  15. I have never tried loop writing but it sounds extremely beneficial.

    Sometimes, I want to delve deeper but am unsure how exactly. This hopefully should pave the way.

    You have a way with words and an obvious teaching gift.

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    • Phoenicia, do give loop writing a try. It’s always a great way to dig into any type of topic.

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  16. That’s a pretty interesting technique. I’ll have to try it sometime. Usually when I write I have everything in my head before I start to write, so the words just kind of come out as if I were copying something. Most of what I write is non fiction that requires some research. Sometimes I’ll write backwards, getting a basic idea written and then doing the research to flesh it out and to fact check.

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    • Ken, so you’re one of those writers, eh? Haha. Well for the rest of us, we need these techniques to clarify our train of thought in order to get words down on the page in a semi-coherent manner.

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  17. Very interesting!
    I’m not sure how it fits into my new found outlining process, but maybe NOT fitting into it is the plan?

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    • Candy, loop writing would be a great supplement to exploring aspects of your outline you’re either stuck on or want to explore more in depth.

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  18. Jeri, this is a real neat approach to take for blogging. Making an inventory of topics and then writing down what you know. This would really help with current projects but also to have an inventory of topics on hand for future posts.
    I’ve never heard the term loop writing before but it is for sure something I will be doing.
    Great advice as always.

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    • Lenie, I can see how this writing technique would come in really handy especially in the case of post’s like this week’s when you generated all those uses for what can be done with milk.

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  19. An interesting concept – I’ll give it a try when and if I get back to writing! Right now I have too much going on! ; (

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    • Jan, I hope you get back to writing on a regular basis soon. My writing life has been derailed significantly lately, but somehow it always seems to come back around. Like in winter when distractions are much less plentiful 😉

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  20. I can see where this would be a good exercise! Loop writing reminds me a little bit of a game I play with my kids when we’re waiting in line or at a restaurant, where each person tells one sentence of a story. It’s amazing to see what unfolds as you follow each person’s sometimes unrelated train of thought!

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    • Meredith, that’s a great comparison. Any kind of associations we start to make always add their own particular twist to the story that is being told. Isn’t it lovely how language can build and build and become so much more than where it started that way?

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  21. This is interesting. I never heard of it. I’ll have to try it out sometime when I have a good handle on my current projects.

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    • Denise, or perhaps try loop writing on a project that is refusing to get under control. This is probably my most favorite writing technique since there’s always a new line to keep the writing and idea development flowing. Often, great surprises come up as I write this way.

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  22. This would be good when you have writer’s block and you can’t pull anything out of the hat. This is a good technique!

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    • Crystal, indeed. The best cure for writer’s block is to counter-intuitive, but just writing something, anything can help keep it at bay.

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  23. I’ve never heard of loop writing but it sounds fascinating. I must admit I very rarely have to search for ideas of things to write about – though I’m guessing this is at least in part because I write nonfiction. In fact I just finished a project and my biggest problem was staying focused because I kept getting all these ideas for other things to write about. Fortunately I keep a pretty organized dump file so this weekend I’ll sift through all those notes and decide what’s worth pursuing.

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    • Marquita, that’s good to hear that you keep an organized dump file. It’s invaluable to have a stockpile of topics. What I like most about loop writing is how it can lead to new avenues of thought for an existing topic. I love stumbling on new insights that way.

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  24. Jeri, This is wonderful! Thank- you for the resources and inspiration. So often, I don’t know where to begin. I have so many ideas swirling in my head my mind is like a mind stuck in a blender. This exercise is going to help so much, thank you…did I thank-you enough?

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  25. I love this! I’ve learned different brainstorming ideas over the years, but I’ve never heard of loop writing. Seems like a great way to develop lots of new ideas. I’m definitely going to give it a try! I’ve been having some topic writer’s block lately for my blog. While I always eventually figure it out, this should definitely help!

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    • Erica, that is wonderful news. I’m glad when the writing exercises I post are so warmly anticipated as loop writing has been.

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  26. Love this idea, Jeri! Thanks for the suggestion. I really like the tag cloud on a blog because it really reveals your topics, kind of like this exercise. Topics and subtopics and their relationship. (that’s not a complete sentence…) but hopefully you know what I mean. I’m going to try this exercise.

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    • Lisa, great connection to a tag cloud indeed. In particular, a tag cloud can help reveal key word deficiencies which could then lead a writer to do more loop writing to develop potential topics related to those keywords.

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  27. Would you say this works best with non-fiction, like maybe blog topics? I like the idea, but I’m not sure how I’d apply it to my novel series.

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    • Loni, loop writing works for fiction, nonfiction, poetry… anything really. You could use loop writing to dig deeper into what makes a character tick–their likes and dislikes. The type of stuff that doesn’t necessarily make it to the page, but helps the author solidify how the character thinks and feels and reacts.

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  28. I could see how this would be a great research tool. I often find that when I begin a story I need to research the background more in order to set the stage. This method is an infinite way of continuing to research. Good idea o set an end point or you will end up in a room all by yourself forever…maybe I am being extreme :)

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    • Tim, some of the best writing often happens when we open ourselves to infinite possibilities and stick with an exercise like this, but yes an end point is definitely needed.

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  29. Hi Jeri,

    Always interesting to stop by your blog and see what wonders you discover. I have been off social media for a long time; been writing up a storm, instead, and have a plethora of novellas waiting for the right home. Reading this, though, about looping, I feel, it is kind of what I’e been doing this whole writing journey over the last 11 years or so, without actually calling it that. When I write a first – and then into the umpteenth draft – I go through my MS’s as if I never wrote them, after months, together with a second manuscript for dumping stuff as I sort out the the more interesting points to focus on and develop – which kinda comes naturally at that point. I never do keep the second manuscript. If it is called ‘looping’, then that’s what I do, and always have done, and I highly recommend it. For me, it takes my stories to places, as a ‘pantster’ I could never possibly map.

    And, finally, may I say, sh*t, you’re so up on things and so organized, its so f**kng annoying! But I love it, really. :) Keep up the good work.

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    • SP, you’re alive! Good to hear you’ve been writing like a mad man. Thanks for the shout-out on my organization. I only wish it applied to my creative writing as much as it did to this dang blog and my freelancing efforts. I keep striving for balance between the two though.

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  30. A great writing tip. I use something similar in my writing. My initial draft of a book, is extremely short. Using this, I can extend the topic discussion and also the word count. Thanks for sharing.

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    • William, interesting that your first drafts are on the short side. Mine tend to be that way as well and I’ll use loop writing and other brainstorming techniques to get the length and substance later drafts need.

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  31. I’d never heard of loop writing but it seems like a great technique for getting the essence of the topic to become the prominent theme and also to prod you to do research. Quite interesting and I can see that it would be quite effective.

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    • Beth, loop writing is extremely effect. For me, like all else in writing creatively, it just comes down to making the time to get it done. It pays off a thousand times over.

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  32. Have never heard of loop writing but doing it obviously is a great exercise. Personally do more or less the same thing when I just start writing about a topic I’m interested in. Ideas then flow when I write and it works out like brainstorming.

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  33. It seems as if I do a variation of loop writing when I am working on my blog articles. It helps me out a lot.

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  34. Never heard of loop writing. I love . . . Jeri! Will definitely try it.
    Thanks for this. have learnt something new today.

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  35. Working through paragraphs and writing out thoughts is how my mind tends to work most of the time. I have done variations on this technique on several occasions.

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    • Jon, that’s good to hear. Have you come across any new-ish brainstorming techniques in the writing classes you’ve been taking?

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  36. I have never heard of loop writing, but it makes sense. I am not a writer, but I can see where this would work when I type out my rough draft of my blog

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    • Arleen, I think I’ve said this a time or two before, but a blogger is a writer! Your posts are great because you are able to connect business and marketing concepts to readers on a very human and relatable level. It’s quite sophisticated and the mark of a writer in the truest sense if there ever was one.

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  37. I heart writing exercises. :) I actually just used a cluster diagram the other day *after* I had written a couple thousand words on a short piece and I realized I had a variety of things goin’ on in it! And I was like, “hmm, what all is in there, anyway?”

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