Freewriting as Design Thinking

4 Jul

One winter afternoon while I was writing my masters’ thesis, my officemate and I made a discovery that permanently changed how I approach the act of “doing research”. I don’t remember how we came to read a review for Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by once Harvard Writing Center Director Joan Bolker. However we stumbled upon it, however, we were inspired to brave the rain to find the library’s copy right away. We read most of the book in about three hours that afternoon, and continued quoting sections aloud to each other until she finished her thesis a few months later. In the four years since then, I have become somewhat of an evangelical for this book and have passed copies out to a number of friends.

Bolker’s premise is fairly simple, but profound. Rather than writing once you have ideas or results in order to tell the story of what you did (i.e. writing as storytelling), she urges a graduate student or scholar to write continuously throughout the research process:

“Writing is at the center of producing a dissertation [or any other piece of scholarship]. This book will teach you how not to talk away your ideas or lose them in mental gymnastics. You will learn to write in order to think, to encourage thought, to tease thought out of chaos or out of fright. You will write constantly, and continuously, at every stage, to name your topic and to find your way into it. You will learn to write past certainty, past prejudice, through contradiction, and into complexity….If you’re to do all of this, you need to write every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes a day” (page 5).

During my masters’ thesis, I embraced this method that Bolker (and others) advocate: regular freewriting and academic journaling. I began work each morning by sitting down with a cup of tea and producing 5 single spaced pages of writing. I wasn’t aiming to produce 5 pages of text that would ultimately go into my thesis. Rather, I was developing ideas, exploring tangents, asking myself questions, problem-solving. Design thinking is often thought of as a social process, but looking back now, I realize the conversation that my daily writing allowed me to have with myself played many familiar roles to that played by team members in the innovation cycle.

My freewriting was a key source of new ideas. Often I started with a self-created “prompt” that had arisen in my work the previous day, perhaps from my reading or, later, from chapter drafts I was working on: To what extent did the culture of the Department of Lands and Survey influence the new Deparment of Conservation after its creation in 1986? Why are attitudes towards wilderness different in the United States and New Zealand? In answering my prompts, I wrote in a brainstorming spirit, without thinking about whether what I was writing was right or not. Instead, I tried to suggest as many possible answers as I could come up with without stopping. Investigating them, analyzing them, testing them against the literature, discussing them with my advisor, weighing them against one another – all these analytic processes came later in the cycle of the day, after my 5 daily writing pages were complete.

Daily writing also served as a means for prototyping. I tested chapter outlines or structures by sketching them out quickly in the morning without the pressure of drafting them “for real.” I tried alternate versions next to one another and then evaluated them, answering (in writing, of course), questions like What are the pros and cons between these two prototype thesis structures?, The daily writing pages gave me what web developers call a “sandbox,” a place on the server to try out pieces of code (or in my case, snippets of writing) and see what it looks like before implementing it in the real document.

A third function my freewriting pages served was to raise new questions and thus identify new needs to be addressed in my work. My style in the pages was reflective to a fault, continually asking myself about the implications of an argument I was making or an explanation I was developing. Being able to ask myself questions in writing allowed me (1) to know where I needed to gather more empirical evidence and (2) forced me to fully think through possible criticisms of my ideas before anyone else saw a draft. Additionally, since writing up ethnographic and interview research can be solitary and even lonely, the pages gave me a way to use my own mind as sort of a teammate, literally carrying on a conversation with myself through my writing each morning, paying attention to not only content but also my own mood, motivation, etc., and suggesting solutions for the inevitable slumps in productivity.

Most importantly, perhaps, by creating an inviolate habit that I began my days with a set amount of writing, I was building in consistent time for creative thinking to occur. Five single spaced pages is a fair bit of writing, taking at least an hour each day. Not daily, but with decent regularly I found myself reaching the state of flow that Csikszentmihalyi talks about, where an idea would lead to a new idea and then to another. By the end of the hour I would have produced a piece of writing with very little conscious sense of having done the work. Besides being exhilarating, this flow state was also incredibly productive. Just about every new idea worth anything in my masters’ thesis made its initial appearance in some form or another during my morning daily writing practice.

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