Feynman writes a novel

The Feynman Technique is a simple way to assess your understanding of a concept. The method is straightforward: pick a concept and explain it in as much detail using terms a child would understand. But that is not the valuable part. No, the value of the exercise is revealed when you come across gaps in your knowledge or in your ability to communicate your knowledge. When you find them, you circle back to source material and then begin the process again.

The premise is that trying to explain the topic comprehensively in a simple manner compels recognition of what we don’t know, and so allows us to increase what we do.

Previously, I had thought this was an exercise confined only to the realms of knowledge. Or to put it another way, non-fiction. But recently I discovered my ignorance. See, at the moment I’m in the research and ideation phase of a novel. I have a process outlined and my intention was to move through it with rigour and patience. But a few weeks ago I said to Molly, “I think I have the prologue figured out.” She said, “Try and write it”. Pffft. I have a plan and according to my plan I shouldn’t be writing the thing for a long time. Pffft. Well. A few days ago, I drafted the prologue, and after I completed the draft I realised that the Feynmann Technique is an equally good match for the fiction writing process. It may even be a better match. Think about it. By trying to write the novel I can work out what I don’t know. Say I try to draft the final chapter and get stuck, then my diagnosis of the issue can only fall into the realm of:

– Character. E.g. they’re not dimensional enough to make their own decisions and act, think and speak in their own distinct manner.
– World. E.g. the world the story takes place in is too abstract, too fuzzy. I don’t understand it’s mechanics, culture, geography, historical precedent etc..
– Events. E.g. I don’t have a clear enough picture of the story’s arc and what will happen to the characters in the world I’ve created.
– Narrative. E.g. I know what happens to the characters in the world I’ve created, but I’m unsure how to describe it—the point of view, the emptiness or fullness of the prose, etc..

So, the Feynman Technique , originally intended for more serious conceptual pursuits, is actually a tool that can be turned to the practice of story writing. One more thing though.

After drafting the prologue and realising that I could utilise the Feynman technique for fiction writing, I also realised that the Feynman Technique only works if you are good at both sides of the equation. If I had to draw a line down the middle, I’d split the process into “acquisition” and “diagnosis”. Getting knowledge is one thing. But the ability to effectively and efficiently diagnose what knowledge you need to get is quite another. Which is where the Feynman Technique shines—it shifts the emphasis onto diagnosis, instead of acquisition.