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"The Construction and Efficacy of the Free Right Tool," by Julian Levy

Page history last edited by Julian Levy 7 years, 6 months ago

The Construction and Efficacy of the Free Right Tool 

 

By Julian Levy, Team Free Right

 

Abstract:

     The goal of project Free Right was to create an online tool that extends the benefits of the traditional free writing exercise1 into the digital age while mitigating the negative attributes inherent in non-digital writing methods. It was determined from preliminary research that the benefits free writing include the promotion of general creativity and emotional well-being, and the exercise has meritorious qualities in academic, personal, and professional settings. The Free Right tool specifically targets the potential for self-editing and self-consciousness while free writing by limiting text visibility, disallowing editing or revision, and providing a countdown timer during the exercise. By testing these constraints within a varied user base and collecting response surveys, the parameters of Free Right were measured against the project’s primary goals. The majority of test subjects found the tool to be useful and stated that it improved their free writing experience overall. It was determined that the Free Right tool fulfilled the initial goals of the project, but due to the constraint of the project’s schedule, further revision of the tool was not possible.


1 For the extent of project Free Right, free writing is defined as continuous writing without editing oneself while writing. See Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

 

Research Phase:

     The initial phase of the project was to conduct research on the topic of free writing, including its origins as an exercise, its benefits and application, and the efficacy of pre-existing free writing tools. Each team member then narrowed their own research to produce annotated bibliographies of various materials and readily available tools.

The origin of free writing was found to be attributable to the efforts of Ken Macrorie and Peter Elbow in the early 1960’s. The exercise, as recognized by the team and implemented into the goals of the Free Right tool, is defined by Elbow in Writing Without Teachers:

The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don't stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross     something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. If you can't think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write "I can't think what to say, I can't think what to say" as many times as you want; or repeat the last word you wrote over and over again; or anything else. The only requirement is that you never stop. (Elbow, 1)

The sense of freedom that this definition appeals to signifies the literary tone of 1960’s America and the Beat movement that was embodied by some of its most notable creative writers. This unrestrained, creative tone was then applied as an existential objective for the Free Right tool; mitigating the limiting constraints of traditional free writing by implementing its goals in a digital tool became paramount.

     The applicative benefits of free writing in academic and personal scenarios were then researched. It was determined from Sheryl Fontaine’s, What does Freewriting Look Like?, that two realms exist in free writing: the personal, and the private. Fontaine’s findings showed that free writing has beneficial effects on personal, emotional states, as well as creative output. The expectation of showing one’s completed free writing to others produced more coherent and ‘presentable’ pieces of writing, while an expectation of total privacy resulted in more personally beneficial results. Including a writing prompt, or general topic for the writer to focus on, produced more coherent and ‘presentable’ texts as well. Ultimately, Fontaine determined that potential variation on setting, expectation, and constraint, produced notably different writings, but all scenarios held explicit value for the writer, either creatively or personally.

     An important aspect of the research phase of the project was determining the efficacy of existing free writing tools. Multiple examples were explored and ultimately determined to be either insufficient at improving the free writing experience, or strayed far from the team’s accepted definition of the exercise.

     The most notable tool, which seemed to have a significant user base, was 420 Fables2. The tool imposes a strict time limit of four minutes and twenty seconds in which the user must write a “fable.” After the elapsed time, the “fable” is locked and cannot be edited. The user can then title the “fable” and tag it. It is then available publicly where its quality can be voted on by others using a five star rating system.

     420 Fables hybridizes the free writing experience by placing it within a social blogging context. It was decided that this did not conform strictly enough to the traditional free writing exercise as defined by Elbow, and therefore its properties would not be mimicked in the Free Right tool.

     A second existing tool that followed the parameters of free writing more closely was Written? Kitten!3. It’s parameters follow a ‘bare-bones’ approach to free writing, providing a simple, Microsoft Notepad-like, window for the user to type in. After a pre-determined number of words are written, the user is rewarded with a picture of a cute cat.

     The reward based system that Written? Kitten! implements seemed beneficial for incentivizing the writer, and a similar element was later explored in the development of the Free Right tool. The reward versus punishment element was considered for its potential to encourage more continuous writing, but due to the time constraints for the Free Right project, the element was abandoned in the prototype tool. (See footnote 5).


2See Daniel Kent’s 420 Fables at http://420fables.com/

3See Emily Skud’s Written? Kitten! at http://writtenkitten.net/ 

 

Determining Project Goals:

     From the research conducted regarding free writing, the project then focused on certain primary goals for the prototype tool: the incentivization of continuous writing, and the mitigation of self editing and self-consciousness. It was determined that these goals could be addressed reasonably well within the time constraints of the project’s development. The testing procedure was also heavily considered when narrowing down the project’s goals; the scope of the tool’s features had to be tightened into certain, testable constraints that could then be analyzed both objectively and subjectively within the time frame of the analysis phase.

     The prescribed goals fit within the most distilled parameters of Elbow’s definition of free writing while simultaneously not over-simplifying the exercise just to fit into the project’s timeline. By promoting continuous writing, the paramount aspect of the free writing exercise is preserved. By limiting the potential for editing and self consciousness, the tool functions as an outlet for unrestrained writing.

 

Construction of the Free Right tool:

     The project goals were then applied to the construction phase of the Free Right tool. Through a series of team meetings and programming revision, the functionality of the prototype tool eventually met the primary goals of the project. The prototype Free Right tool included several features: a varied countdown timer of 3, 7, and 15 minutes, an optional writing prompt, a typing window that limits the visibility of the written text, and a “reveal button” that displays the total text when the exercise concludes.

Free Right tool screenshotThe timer was implemented to incentivize the continuousness of writing by creating a stable and predictable time frame. The timer functionality was also implemented to produce a regular environment for the testing process and remove the variability of each tester’s verbosity (and patience). The writing prompts that were provided for the testers were optional, and served to ‘jump-start’ their creativity. (It was supposed by the team that different types of prompts, including visual or auditory prompts, might be useful for this process, but the feature was ultimately limited to static, text-based prompts due to the project’s time constraints.) This was an extension of Sheryl Fontaine’s work that proved the benefits of writing prompts. The typing window (Free Right’s most notable feature) displays only two words at a time - once two words are typed, the window goes blank. This feature, in conjunction with hiding the typed text while writing, served to limit the self-consciousness of the user, as well as their ability to edit themselves while they write. (During the preliminary testing phase within the team, it was determined that displaying two words, rather than one, or three, etc., was the ideal amount to promote verbosity.) The “reveal” button that displays the completed text when the timer concludes serves the obvious purpose of giving the user their completed product.

 

Testing Phase:

     To determine the efficacy of the Free Right tool, it was tested4 with a small sample of college-aged peers. The results of their experience were recorded in two surveys administered before and after the completion of the test. The surveys were hosted using the free Surveymonkey online service. The testing phase of the project was administered over one weekend with a total of eight testers. Most participants were met with in-person, but some were tested non-locally via email exchange to increase the testing pool.

     The pre-survey consisted of a series of yes-or-no questions with room to briefly elaborate:

  1. Do you consider yourself to be a writer?
  2. Have you ever free written before?
  3. If so, do you still free write and how often?
  4. In your own words, define free writing.
  5. Do you think free writing is beneficial?
  6. What do you find difficult about free writing?

These questions were designed to ascertain the free writing experience of the tester and what they felt were the benefits and limitations of the exercise.

After completing the pre-survey, each participant tested the Free Right tool with a 3 minute, 7 minute, and 15 minute timer. Each test contained a unique writing prompt that the the participant could choose to follow or ignore.

     The post-survey followed the same format as the pre-survey. It’s function was to ascertain the quality of the Free Right tool, as defined by its primary goals, and what changes could be made to improve the experience:

  1. What time limit did you like the best?

  2. Did the beep incentivize your writing?5

  3. Did you find the prompts helpful?

  4. Did you find this free writing program useful?

  5. Is there anything you would change about the program?

  6. Do you think you’ll use more of your personal time to write?

(Unfortunately, one response to the post-survey was lost due to an undiagnosed error in the Surveymonkey system.)


 4Note - The confidentiality of all testers was ensured. Their identity, including any personal information, as well as the writing that they produced, was not recorded or shared outside of the project. All testers were informed of the full scope and particulars of the project.

5It was originally planned to implement a feature where the Free Right tool would produce a beep when the user stopped typing. This was planned to incentivize the continuousness of writing. The feature was not completed in time for testing, but the survey was not updated to reflect this.

 

Data:

     The complete Data set, consisting of the pre and post-surveys, can be seen at the following links:

(Full survey results omitted for confidentiality reasons.)

(Note to Professor Liu - The testers were guaranteed confidentiality of their survey responses, so I’m not sure what the ethical ramifications are of sharing the full survey results. They don’t include personal information, and are more or less inconsequential outside of the scope of the project. Nonetheless, I will exclude these links from the version of the report that I post on the course site and include them on the version that I email directly to you.)

     Pre Survey - Concerning the yes-or-no portion of the survey: half of the participants considered themselves to be writers, the majority had free written before, and all testers believed that free writing was beneficial. Concerning the brief answer portion: most did not regularly free write, there was a split between defining free writing as a “stream of consciousness” process and a following of a prompt, and there was a wide range of experienced difficulties regarding free-writing, including: “arthritis,” difficulty in not stopping, and self-editing or self-consciousness.

     Post Survey - Concerning the yes-or-no portion of the survey: most testers liked the 7 minute timer, found the prompts helpful, found the Free Right tool useful, and believed that they would use more of their free time to write. Roughly half of the testers stated that they would change something about the tool. Concerning the brief answer portion: Most users found the 7 minute timer to be the best, stating, on average, that 3 minutes was too short, offering little time to “settle in,” and 15 minutes to be too long to focus on one idea. Most testers found the prompts to be useful as a “jumping off point,” but stated that they did not follow them strictly for the whole time period. There were a wide variety of reasons why the testers found the tool to be useful. The responses included: enjoying the prompts, finding it stress relieving, and finding it effective in preventing self-editing. The proposed changes to the program included having the option to hide the timer and increasing the number of words displayed in the typing box. Most users offered a positive reply about writing more in their free time, but a common issue was not having enough free time at all.

 

Analysis and Conclusion:

     The overarching goal of the Free Right project to create a digital tool that enhances the traditional free writing exercise was achieved. Through a varied research process, the history, significance, and application of free writing was explored and distilled into a concise set of parameters for the Free Right tool. The testing phase, although limited by the time constraints of the project, proved to highlight the benefits of the tool and its ability to simply ‘get people writing.’ The majority of testers reported a positive experience with the program and offered advice for improvements that mirrored our own expectations for a finished product. Unfortunately, the full scope of the project, including the programming time, and implementation of the testing phase, severely limited the team’s ability to test and improve the tool beyond its prototype phase. Ideally, more testers would be consulted, and the testing parameters would be honed into a more scientific process that reduces the number of extraneous variables. If more time were available, the tool would be revised to have more user-customizable parameters, true online availability, greater prompt availability, and a more visually polished user interface. In a finished state, the tool could be implemented as a means to aid creativity and personal growth in countless fields. Overall, project Free Right was a success, and an exciting step forward in the digital humanities.



Works Cited

Elbow, Benjamin. "Freewriting." Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. pp. 1-7. Print.

 

Fontaine, Sheryl. "What does Freewriting Look Like?". Nothing Begins With N: New Investigations of Freewriting. Fontaine et al. Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. pp. 3-15. Print.

 

Kent, Daniel. "420 Fables." 420 Fables. N.p., n.d. Web.

 

Skud, Emily. "Written? Kitten!" Written? Kitten! N.p., n.d. Web.

 

 

 

 

 

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