Inkshedding: an activity for events

Inkshedding participants, 2008. From the Inkshed website.

Inkshedding participants. All photos from Inkshed 23 conference website.

“Inkshedding” is a way of discussing ideas through a writing activity done as a group.  It has been done at academic conferences, in classrooms, and at Town Hall forums.

I was recently asked to explain inkshedding to an organization affiliated with my university that was planning an event on a pressing social issue.

Here is a brief explanation of how to plan and execute an inkshedding activity as part of a public forum on a topic of broad social interest.


It is wise to put this exercise right after a speech, video or engaging event, and right before a coffee or meal break or the end of the event.  Inkshedding can capture and amplify immediate reactions and generate discussion during the subsequent coffee time or spur follow-up communication after an event.

It will take approximately 20 minutes, though it could be shorter or longer depending on how much discourse and excitement is generated by the preceding event.


Facilitator explains Inkshedding

Facilitator explains Inkshedding.

– 5 minutes.

When I have adapted Inkshedding for Town Hall events and forums, I first provide a sense of purpose and meaning for the activity.

  • I explain that it’s a way of making sure more voices are heard and ideas are recorded than can be possible in an oral discussion with a large number of people present.
  • I explain that it’s a fun, interactive social activity that both generates new ideas and provides a sense of closure for an event.
  • I tell them it enables participants to contribute their fresh reactions and learn from others’ reactions and ideas.
  • I say it’s like an electronic discussion board in real-time face to face format, and a little bit like secretly passing notes among friends during a class, only this is not secret.

I then explain the procedure’s steps.

  1. Writing down our thoughts as they come to us, without worrying too much about style and correctness.
  2. Reading other people’s writing and underlining and commenting on striking passages.
  3. Finding our original inkshed to see what others have written on it
  4. Keeping one’s inkshed private or submitting your inkshed to the conference organizers.

I explain what we will do with the writing afterwards.

  • If it’s being used as a research method, I talk through an informed consent process. If used in research, it is a little bit like doing a focus group with a large number of people using writing instead of speech, and using a very open-ended and broad prompt for writing.
  • If it is being used to build a sense of community or generate understanding of a pressing issue, I might explain that the inksheds will be edited and selections will be published on a website or newsletter provided to the participants within a month after the event.
  • Event/conference organizers may edit the comments and quote them in a report of the event, and/or may perform a content analysis of the inksheds to research the themes and concerns of participants.

Usually one uses colored paper so that inksheds can be distinguished from other papers in people’s possession, or papers that have the words “this sheet of paper is to be used in an Inkshedding exercise” so people know they are not supposed to write on them earlier.

To give people motivation and guidance to write, tell them something like this:

Use the inkshedding paper provided [describe what it looks like, or hand it out at the time]. Summarize one idea you heard today that sticks out in your memory. Provide your reaction of praise, criticism or agreement. You can tell a short anecdote to illustrate your response, if you wish. Or, you can provide your own creative idea that would provide a new opportunity or a potential solution to a problem you perceive. If you can’t think of anything to say or are uncomfortable writing, you don’t have to write anything down or contribute your writing to the group, and you will still be free to participate by commenting on what others have written. You can put your name somewhere on your inkshed paper, or you can leave it anonymous.

Guidance about content and participation provides comfort for people who need reassurance that what they write is appropriate and will not publicly embarrass them.


An inkshed expressing appreciation to the presenter

An inkshed expressing appreciation to the presenter

– 5-10 minutes

This involves a number of people voluntarily taking the risk of writing down their own thoughts about a speech or event they have just experienced together.

Everyone should try to be relatively silent out of respect for the writing process during the first 5-10 minutes while people are writing.

A few people won’t feel comfortable enough to participate in writing but can still participate in reading and commenting on others’ inksheds.

Have extra Inkshedding paper handy for people who want to discard what they started to write and start over again.


Stage 2

Stage 2, first sharing at your own table

– 5-10 minutes

When it looks like 1/3 of the people are done recording their own thoughts, conference organizers encourage people to make their papers available for others to read when they are done, and to find other inksheds to read and comment on. Remind them “If you find a striking comment in someone else’s inkshed, you can add checkmarks, underlines, circles, lines in the margin, or write down your own responses in the margins of the piece of paper.”

Find a way of keeping the momentum going.  After commenting on a few, it often motivates a person to hunt for more that they have not seen, out of curiosity.  If people wait too long between finishing one inkshed and finding another to comment on, they will start to get restless or bored.  It is advisable to keep people active and moving.  Participants may pass around paper while sitting down if they are not mobile, but because nobody can predict whose inkshed will be ready to trade with another, people may want to get up from their seats and walk to find other colored pieces of paper.

One way of encouraging movement among reluctant people is to say “when you are done with the paper in front of you, hold it up in one arm like this [gesture] and look for someone else who is making the same signal and trade with them.  If you have already seen that piece of paper, find a new one to comment on.”

During this phase of transition from writing to reading, there will be random movement and sound.  At first, some people are still going to be finishing their own inksheds while others are starting to walk around, passing papers and reading or commenting on them. Occasionally people will break out in laughter when they read something, or quietly ask “are you done with that paper? Have you seen this one yet?” or “I’ve already seen that one.”


What did others write on my inkshed?

What did others write on my inkshed?

– 5 minutes

When the excitement and movement in the room seems to have peaked and begins to decline (it begins to be challenging to find papers that you have not seen already), facilitators announce that there will be X number of minutes left to comment on other people’s papers.  Soon, someone announces “The inkshed that you are currently reading is the last one you’ll comment on.”  Once the exercise is over, the organizers suggest that writers find their own inksheds (people will recognize their own handwriting and ideas).  Give them a little time to see what others have written on them.

Optional:  If it fits with your event’s goals and time permits, you may wish to move to a large discussion by asking people what they learned from the inkshedding exercise.


A handwritten inkshed among conference handouts

A handwritten inkshed among conference handouts

Encourage them to leave their own inksheds behind for the conference organizers to read.  If they are not comfortable with submitting it, they may keep their own inkshed and take it with them.

In the end, the event organizers will collect the colored papers left behind or handed in by participants. They may use them for the purposes stated above, or may use them to evaluate the success of the event.

That’s the end!  Best wishes on your inkshedding adventure.  If you have tried it, post your tips and comments as a reply to this blog.


If you are curious, the Canadian origins of the “Inkshed conference” and inkshedding as an activity can be found online here and here At the “inkshed conference,” most speakers’ panels end with inkshedding sessions.   Participants take turns volunteering for the day to collect and edit the inksheds.  They meet in a room with their comptuers at the end of the day and decide on which popular snippets are suitable for “publication” on the next day of the conference

Internal “publication” to the community may be via paper handouts, or via papers posted on a billboard, or large print quotations on a power point slide show during a lunch break .

The conference program online then has links to the presenters’ abstracts with links to the edited inksheds written in response to their speeches. For an example, see the program for Inkshed 19 in 2002


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