What are spray diagrams?

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Spray diagrams are very widely used as a thinking tool. They can be used in a number of different ways: for thinking about a topic from scratch rather like a structured sort of brainstorming; for taking notes; and for setting out the structure of an argument.

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Spray diagrams can be valuable both as a product and as a process.

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The process of constructing a spray diagram can help you to integrate and structure large amounts of material for example from a number of different documents or interviews. The process can help you to untangle the argument in a complex or badly written document. You can use a spray diagram to organise material into a structure either to clarify your understanding, or as the basis for a report or presentation.

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The product the spray diagram you end up with can be used as a communication tool perhaps to give an overview during a presentation, or to allow you to share your mental map of a situation as you discuss it with others.

The diagram can be a useful reference - a record of information you might later need. Personally I find spray diagrams very useful as a memory aid. Itís as if they capture my understanding of a situation in the form that is laid down in my brain. The diagram acts like a key to the memory, bringing back not just what is written in the diagram, but also my memory of the ideas and details I associated with the points in the diagram at the time I drew it. Perhaps this is why spray diagrams are sometimes referred to as mind maps.

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As you can see, the form of a spray diagram is very simple. Just lines, and words at the nodes where the lines join. No arrows.

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Occasionally people write along the lines, rather than at the ends of them, or use colour for emphasis.

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Itís a good idea to circle the topic or central idea that the diagram sprays out from. Some people also find it useful to circle other key nodes on the diagram.

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One thing which makes spray diagramming easier than other types of diagramming is that you don't have to think about the nature of the connection between two nodes joined by a line. The line simply means that in your mind there is some association.

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Fanning in, to show connections between different branches of a diagram, is sometimes frowned on, perhaps because it might inhibit your flow of thinking if you're using the diagram as a way of brainstorming. Personally I sometimes find it useful to fan in, particularly when exploring the structure of an argument, because a good argument will often make connections between the reasoning of different lines of argument.

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Like rich pictures, spray diagrams are often used in the early stages of an analysis. People have different preferences.

Some people find it very difficult to plunge into a rich picture perhaps if they're less graphically minded so they find a spray diagram a good place to assemble their initial ideas before sketching them.

Others believe that drawing a spray diagram can limit your understanding of a situation by requiring you to impose a hierarchical structure which may later constrain you to see the situation in this particular way, while a rich picture can capture ideas without constraining them.

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As well as depending on personal preference, it can depend very much on the type of exploration you're undertaking. A rich picture can be better for capturing impressions which don't readily or entirely translate into words. A spray diagram can be better for capturing material which someone else has already put into words, perhaps especially print, where words are the sole means of communication.

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A spray diagram may provide material you wish to explore further in a systems map or multiple cause diagram.

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Sometimes spray diagrams are referred to as tree diagrams or mind maps. They're also similar to concept maps.

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Spray diagrams often look very messy while you're drafting them, and you can go through numerous drafts as you think of better ways to structure your ideas into related groupings, and as space becomes needed for new ideas. Itís often worth producing a final draft which makes the tree-like structure clear, so that it can easily be read at a glance.

I find that setting out the structure clearly on paper helps me to see it clearly in my head. Itís not that itís the right structure - there are always many possible structures itís more that the structure is a sort of container for the ideas, so that they're remembered and understood, rather than lost in the distant corners of my brain. Like a container, the structure constrains the shape that the ideas take. So at the same time as helping you to reach an understanding, the structure can also limit understanding.

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Finally, remember that spray diagramming can help you to develop a very important skill that of constructing a coherent argument from a set of related but initially unstructured ideas.