Book Review: A Technique for Producing Ideas (or Five Steps Towards a Dissertation)

booksIf you don’t have time for a story, I can summarize this post in three words: Keep a journal. Otherwise, continue reading and pick up a copy of A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. It’s a short, worthwhile read for anyone involved in a creative pursuit. Or for anyone writing a dissertation. (Hopefully you apply the “creative” label to your dissertation work!)

Keep A Journal

While reading this book, I realized I had already been practicing the habits it describes. For a few years during college my friends and I held regular jam sessions, recording the entirety of each one–around forty sessions according to my music library. I streamlined the process so that I could produce a CD within a few days. We could then reference ideas by date and track number, exchanging emails with one another to point out a hook or melody which occurred at a specific time in the track. At subsequent jams, someone would introduce one of those previous ideas and off we went. The hard part of all this was being diligent in the recording process. It required only marginally more effort to keep track of those particularly useful nuggets of ideas. The act of songwriting became an afterthought once this process was in place.

I now interpret our musical experiment as a “jam session journal”. I had another such revelation during a family trip/reunion. My brother had the foresight to purchase a few cheap notebooks, handing them out to everyone on the first day. I am amazed when we reminisce while looking at those notebooks; those scribbles on the page allow us to recreate memories which would have been otherwise lost. Consider this more eloquent perspective from Dick Cavett:

As with so many times in my life, I wish I’d kept some notes on the dinner conversation. In relative youth we assume we’ll remember everything. Someone should urge the young to think otherwise… In line with the French saying “L’appétit vient en mangeant” (“Appetite comes while eating”), memories come back when writing.

The Method

This has turned into an homage to Mr. Young’s work versus a traditional book review. His book contains a series of similar anecdotes, filling only around fifty pages. You could read it while standing in the book store. Since it is so short, let me paraphrase now the “whole process or method by which ideas are produced” as outlined by Mr. Young:

  1. The gathering of raw materials.
  2. The working over of these materials in your mind.
  3. The incubating stage.
  4. The birth of The Idea.
  5. The final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.

That is the method! If you’ve made good notes and spent a lot of time thinking about them, eventually a good idea will emerge!

Write, Write, Write!

Steps one through three are essentially the journaling process; making it easy as possible to record ideas when they come to you. Mr. Young suggests index cards or a scrapbook. I keep notebooks for every occasion. I write down any questions I think up, answer previous questions and summarize lessons learned that day. As a recent smartphone convert, my most-used application is a text editor which syncs with my Dropbox. The best system is one you use frequently.

Keep in mind that step three can be stressful. Here’s a quote from an interview with one of my favorite artists John Vanderslice, but the first two minutes are very inspiring:

[My song-writing] usually starts, actually, with like a narrative idea, with a story idea. And then I sit at my desk with a blank piece of paper and I don’t move until like I have like a song more or less started. And then once it’s started, you can of like make your way through the song. But, you have to really be disciplined to stay put. Because what your mind is… what your animal mind is saying is, “this is anxiety-producing, let’s go run, let’s go out and run in the fields.”

You have to stay put for hours against your will.

Do you keep a journal? What does your writing system look like?

About Derek Smith

Former weather dude and scientific software developer. In the upcoming 2015-16 year I will complete my PhD at UCSB in nonlinear dispersive equations. I enjoy spending time with my two young daughters and running.
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