Writing a Novel? Harness the Power of Design Thinking

Writing a Novel? Harness the Power of Design Thinking

Your novel is a prototype. Treat it that way.v
Sean Hewens
No items found.
read time:

About a year ago, I finished a novel. After much editing in the early morning hours, I arrived at that place where I could no longer see any flaws in the book. What I needed next was feedback (on what I hoped was a masterpiece, but couldn’t be quite sure).

But that’s the thing. Finding readers who have the time to slog through an unpublished manuscript is hard. Like, really hard. Many people said they would read it, but never got further than the first few chapters. Was it because they hated the book? Or just because they got busy watching season four of Orange is the New Black? And the wonderful friends who did read it—were they actually honest with me? Or pulling punches because, who wants to make a friend cry?

That’s when a friend who actually finished my book had an idea: What if we could take some of the best aspects of the design thinking process (such as collaboration, multidisciplinary perspectives, prototyping) and adapt them for the writing and publishing space by connecting authors with a diverse pool of readers who could provide thoughtful, honest feedback? Meet The Spun Yarn.

We hypothesized that there was a whole universe of potential readers out there—moms and dads and students and grandparents who might be interested in earning a bit of extra cash by providing thoughtful feedback on an unpublished novel. So we placed a Craigslist ad in four cities to see what would happen. Within 24 hours, we had to pull the posting because we were flooded with wonderful applicants. A traveling musician from Wisconsin. A cookbook author from Georgia. A retiree and jewelry maker from San Jose. We hired these folks and others and created the framework and the process to provide honest and actionable feedback on people’s novels—including mine.

Here's how it works:

Every novel that we receive is matched with three readers, each of whom reads the entire book and provides feedback using the same evaluation matrix (a mix of qualitative and quantitative input).

The Spun Yarn's feedback process.

Once this stage is complete, our Spun Yarn team crunches the reader input and identifies the themes and patterns that have emerged about the manuscript. We deliver this synthesized feedback report to the writer. In a sense, what we’re doing is helping writers understand that a draft of their book is just like a design prototype. Most of the time, what we’re finding is pretty straightforward stuff. A main character needs to be fleshed out. An author’s ending ties things up way too neatly. Readers absolutely loved the glimpse into the world of surgery that a certain novel provides. Double down on that in a future prototype (I mean, draft) of the novel.

There’s a saying attributed to IDEO founder David Kelley that there’s no such thing as one magic idea. What I’ve learned from the Spun Yarn is that the same goes for novel writing. It turns out (based upon input from three very thoughtful and very honest Spun Yarn readers), that I haven’t written a masterpiece. There is a ton of work that still needs to be done. But thanks to help from my own multi-disciplinary design team (based in Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Berkeley, respectively), the next draft of my novel will be just a little bit closer.

Have you written a novel? Want some honest feedback? Visit thespunyarn.com.

No items found.
Sean Hewens
Sean is a systems designer and a legal innovation explorer at IDEO. He’s also a writer, a beer maker, and a fictional cartographer on the side.
No items found.

Subscribe to the IDEO newsletter

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.