Going with the ‘flow’

One of our PhD students – Binhui Shao is currently exploring whether to apply the concept of flow to looking at students’ use of different technologies. Flow theory has been developed by Csikszentmihalyi and others. Flow theory essentially is a concept used to describe

‘the holistic experience that people feel when they act with total involvement’ or ‘… flow – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it’ (taken from http://edutechwiki.unige.ch/en/Flow_theory).

In her interviews with people about their experiences of flow writing papers, gaming, gardening and computer programming were all mentioned as times when people felt they had experienced flow. Certainly for me writing papers is definitely a time when I feel I am experiencing flow and it is interesting to reflect on the experiences I have had of writing two articles recently. The first is a paper I have just submitted for a conference on our Cloudworks – social networking for learning design work. The second is an article for Ariadne entitled ‘New schemas for mapping pedagogies and technologies’ which will be out soon.

The Cloudworks paper was a classic example of how I normally experience flow. I decided on a focus for the paper and started writing – oscillating between developing the structure of the paper and specific details in each of the subsections. I drew on a whole range of aspects of our Learning Design Initiative activities over the past year and a half – the conversations we have had in team meetings, or in smaller groups, the workshops and events we ran, exploration of the empirical data gathered, feedback from conference presentations, etc. In particular for this paper I was very aware of the conversations over the last few weeks: with Juliette Culver on the technical development of Cloudworks and in particular shifting from calling entities in the site ‘Cloudlets and Designs’ to ‘Clouds and Stormclouds’ (thanks to Karen Littleton for the latter suggestion one lunchtime!), with Perry Williams about forthcoming Cloudfests we are running and also with Simon Cross about the overall initiative and plans for the next phase of activities. The paper probably took about 4 or 5 days intense days writing – contributions from the rest of the team over this period helped to sanity check my initial version and also comments via this blog from an early draft helped to strengthen it. 

This description is probably fairly typical of how I go about writing things. One of the advantages is it means I can produce a lot of words relatively quickly. The downside is half of them are probably rubbish and the thing is normally littered with errors which I then find hard to detect because I read what I want to see rather than what is actually on the screen, Does this fit with anyone else’s experience or do people have alternative approaches?

In contrast for the Ariadne article I initially adopted a different approach. I wanted to focus the article around a presentation I did for the Eduserv conference in May. As the session has been recorded I thought it might be interesting to start writing the article from the presentation I gave so I started listening, essentially trying to transcribe the speech. After about a paragraph or so I realised this just wasn’t going to work. Then I tried an alternatively strategy. I decided to use MacDictate to ‘talk’ through the article. But again this just didn’t work. I found the speed of talking too slow in comparison with writing on the keyboard  - which I find is a little like playing a piano – your fingers whiz over the keyboard as you try and get your thoughts down on paper as fast as possible, So in the end I reverted to my standard approach. I locked myself in a room in Sardinia for a day and with the EduServ presentation upper most in my mind produced a first draft of the article.


Is there something more to this? What does it say about how papers and articles are produced and how the different techniques and media influence that production process? Or is it just my idiosyncratic approach to writing? Would welcome other people’s views! PS in writing this blog I went through much the same process as I described for the Cloudworks papers. I thought through the focus and general content for the post whilst lying in bed this morning and have now just sat for the last 15 mins or so writing. Actually I am not sure of the exact amount of time to be honest  - guess I have just been ‘in the flow’ ;-)

10 Responses to “Going with the ‘flow’”

  1. Mark Northover Says:

    Love the idea of ‘flow’ - I’m sure that’s how I work best as well; waiting for the mood to take me and then going with it.

    However, how does this work with the accepted traditional form of academic writing, where argument should be supported by literature reviews, reference to other work, etc. This implies a much more considered and structured approach to writing that somewhat defeats the purpose of waiting for the flow to happen.

    I guess there’s a certain amount of a combination of the two, and each is appropriate in its own time.

  2. Gráinne Says:

    Hi Mark

    i think it is a combination - once i have got the first recently draft by ‘going with the flow’ i will then tend to go back and edit and add in references etc and iteratively improve (hopefully) over time!!

  3. AJ Cann Says:

    The best writer’s maxim I know is “Don’t get it right, get it written”, i.e. capture then edit later (or “filter on the way out”, as we now say). Self-editing is too good an excuse not to write - and technology makes it worse (even more excuses)!

    Funnily enough, I’ve got a blog post about “flow”, written as part of a series, coming up soon.

  4. Gráinne Says:

    Hiya Alan yep a i agree with you. Haven’t yet tried to cut and paste and assemble something from my blog postings but no doubt that will come. Will be interested to see your post about flow.

  5. Mat Schencks Says:

    I’ve been using the dictation tool built onto Vista for my current TMA’s and have found it less tiring (I feel far more refreshed after a day in front of the screen) than typing and its easier to get a good version down first time (i.e. less rubbish to weed out later on - good when you are trying to stick to a word limit).

    I feel it works for me because I can think more about what i’m saying rather than using brain power to make my fingers work the right keys. It did seem slower at first but getting close to the final version 1st time round won me over - even though i’m a pretty fast (admittedly 2-fingered) on the keyboard.

  6. Suzanne Aurilio Says:

    In the process of dissertation writing, I’m very keen to hear others’ writing process. I know flow very well from my background in creative and songwriting. And I’m one of those “I write to find out what I think” people. I have experimented with more linear and “organized” approaches to writing, like outlining, and in some circumstances they work. However the process of generating ideas and refining them in words teeters on my creative writing experience.

    I too subscribe to some maxims such as “don’t create ideas and edit them at the same time.” And I like hearing how other people do writing in the field.

    Secretly, I’m looking for some efficiency tips. Unlike when I was a songwriter, I don’t have all day to write 4 sentences. :)

  7. Gráinne Says:

    Lol suzaanne - song writing days sound idyllic! I agree outlines, mindmaps etc don’t seem to work for me either and like you i definitely write to think. It’s interesting to reflect isn’t it. I am sure there must be a range of styles/approaches, i wonder what impact it has on the final product?

    Efficiency tips - nope ‘frad not. Except there is nothing like a looming (or just past) deadline to motivate the heck out of me! :-)

  8. Gráinne Says:

    Really interesting comments Matt - so two questions: is it to do with one’s speed etc with the interface - ie how fast you type and /or your preference for how you develop ideas?

  9. Mat Schencks Says:

    I always felt I was pretty nippy on the keyboard, but have found its quicker overall to talk (typing feels faster - but if its more than a few words that are needed then its not).

    I think my preference for developing ideas is to think, then speak into the computer. Previously, I would have typed lots of stuff (trying to keep up with my brain), reflected on what was written, maybe written some more, gone back, made a few changes and then carried on writing again and so on. I also notice that even when I say that I “think” before speaking, it’s actually more like just giving space to let the words come of their own accord – it feels more passive, natural and relaxed compared with typing. For me that’s where I find my flow.

    There is still the need to revisit and reshape what I’ve put down after a while. But, what I don’t seem to spend so much time doing is having to re-write long wordy paragraphs that could have been put far more succinctly in the first place.

  10. Gráinne Says:

    Hi Mat

    it’s really interesting to hear different people’s views on how they develop ideas and whether speak or typing is best and also what impact the different processes have in terms of ones creativity.


Leave a Reply