Asking and Answering Questions

A colleague of mine teaches chemistry to classes of two hundred students. Because this large class doesn't easily allow students to raise their hands to ask questions, the instructor has asked the students to write out their questions during the lecture and deposit them in a cardboard box labeled QUESTIONS that sits just inside the doorway to the classroom. At the beginning of the next class period, the instructor answers selected questions before moving on to new material. A few of the questions from the chemistry question box are reproduced here exactly as they were found, demonstrating how sometimes writing out the question can actually lead to the answer.

A fairly typical question from a fairly confused student is given in Figure 3-1. In this example, there is no evidence that in writing out this question the student is one whit closer to finding an answer than when he or she started, which, of course, will often be the case. But consider the next question, Figure 3-2. In this example, the student writes out a question that he or she takes a stab at answering at the same time: "Is sulfur an exception?" The instructor read this question to the class and

Figure 3-1

Figure 3-1

simply answered yes as the student was actually ahead of the lectures at this point.

Now look at the next example, Figure 3-3. Here the student began to ask a question during lecture, and in the process of writing out the question, figured out the answer. (We have this sample only because other unanswered questions were written on the same scrap of paper.)

In the last example, Figure 3-4, a similar process is at work. This student not only realizes that "the peptide bond" is the answer to the question, but decides to share the discovery with the instructor to thank him, apparently, for the opportunity of asking questions in the questions box in the first place.

The principle at work in the last two examples is a powerful one: the act of saying how and where one is stuck or confused is itself a liberating process. It is unclear exactly why this happens or how to guarantee that it will continue to occur, but I suspect that we've all had similar experiences, both in speech and in writing.

The next time you are confused about a math problem or the lines of a difficult poem, try to write out the precise nature of the confusion. It is possible that in articulating your question you will find your answer, but if not, at least you will have a clear statement of the question from which to begin a more methodical quest for an answer.

34 Thinking with Writing Figure 3-2

Figure 3-3
Figure 3-4


Freewriting is fast writing—likethis—about anything that comes to mind—as fast as you can do it & without worrying about what it looks like at all—just trying desperately to write as fast as you can think—as I am now—not worrying at all about what the words look like, trying rather to catch the flow of thought on my mind—which right now IS freewriting & so I write here as fast as I can for a fixed period of time (for me I usually write from 5 to 10 minutes at a crack, then back off & look at what I've wrought— writ—whatever). I don't freewrite well on the computer because I make so many typing mistakes—wihch distravct me—and so I usually freewrite by hand either in my journal or on a scratch pad. In this sample I've gone back and fixed most of the typing mistakes—otherwise you'd spend more time deciphering it than I did writing it.

Freewriting is a powerful problem-solving tool. Ignore it at your peril! Writing fast helps you in two distinct ways. First, freewriting is a good way to start any piece of writing; the technique forces you to write on, instead of stare at, a blank piece of paper (or a blank computer screen). You stop trying to decide how to start; when you freewrite, you just start and don't worry about where it's going or what, exactly, the words look like at this particular time. If it turns out that what you've written is important, you'll go back later and make it look nice; if it has been a stimulus to one or two good ideas, you'll copy those and go on from there; if nothing interesting happened, you'll just throw it away and maybe try another one.

Freewriting also helps because it turns off your internal editor and insists that you write out the very first word/thought that occurs to you, much like the exercise of free association, where in response to a prompt (black, for example) you say the first word that comes to mind (white?). The benefits to a thinker, problem solver, or writer—at least during initial stages of writing—are substantial, because if you can avoid editing your thought before it comes out, you have more to look at, play with, modify, and expand. During these initial phases of problem solving, it's more important to see variety and quantity than development and quality. Free-writing helps spread out the problem for examination.

It doesn't matter whether you use freewriting as a technique to find out what's on your mind, to address a specific issue that puzzles you, or to start composing a formal paper. It's an all-purpose generative activity and, as such, is transportable to many different situations.

The directions for freewriting are quite simple: write fast; keep your pen moving; use whatever shortcuts you like (&); don't worry about spelling, punctuation, and the like; let the words chart your thinking path (which means digressing is just fine); write for a fixed period of time (ten minutes works well); if you can't think of anything to write, write "I can't think of anything to write" until you do.

Techniques such as freewriting do not work for everyone. One of my students, Sean, wrote the following passage in his journal:

I'm not sure that this rapid fire methodology helps me. I need to look over my work. Scratch it out. Curse at it. Scream. Cry. And all those other things that make me a writer.

I tried to convince Sean that he could write fast sometimes and go back and do the more careful stuff later, but he was never comfortable with freewriting, and I didn't push it. Different techniques work for different people.

Conceptual Mapping

Writing doesn't always look like writing, as the examples from chemistry class demonstrate. I find that many times when I'm trying to figure something out, I'll write single words or short phrases on a sheet of paper, circle or put boxes around them, then connect these to one another with lines or arrows. In fact, I use this shorthand visual writing more than any other kind when I'm trying to delimit a problem or think about a free-writing topic. Sometimes I do this on empty journal pages, other times on restaurant place mats—whatever is handy.

Here is one concrete example: If for any reason you need to break a problem or question down into manageable size—say to make a presentation about the Vietnam War or locate the best marketing strategy for a hypothetical business venture—consider making a quick visual map to see what the problem territory looks like. Start by writing out your general topic area (for example, the Vietnam War) in the center of a sheet of paper and put a circle around it. Then you see how many possibilities you can think of and cluster them around your central idea in smaller circles, as in Figure 3-5.

At this point you may have already found the issue you want to investigate, in which case you can continue using this technique to refine your topic, your next circled word being Causes of the Vietnam War, and so forth.

Figure 3-5

Figure 3-5

If you want to discuss a number of the issues you have just diagrammed, you might put priority numbers next to the various circled terms. In the Vietnam War example, we might enumerate these subtopics to explore further: (1) history, (2) politics, (3) reaction at home. This list then becomes the beginning of an outline into which to add still more detail, or it becomes an order of investigation on your part. The point is that the visual spread of ideas helps you both to see relationships and to discover new possibilities, and it does so even more rapidly than freewriting.

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