Getting started with
Mind mapping is a great first step for any project, whether you're writing an article, structuring a website or planning a business initiative. Faced with something new, many of us feel daunted, inundated with ideas, or completely stuck, unsure how or where to begin.
A mind map can help us see various paths and possibilities, radiating outward before we move onward.
A couple of months ago, I was crawling the internet for a good article or video to introduce mind mapping to a fellow writer, but I didn't find much that was clear and helpful. So here I am, writing about how I use this technique so that you can too.
Don't get me wrong; I love a good list. But sometimes, when there are too many choices or possible outcomes, it's easy to get overwhelmed. Putting down everything you're thinking on paper as it occurs to you, irrespective of whether it's fully formed, can be a game changer. As you'll see, there's a place for everything.
HALF-BAKED IDEAS (WHAT IS A MIND MAP?)
I first learned about mind mapping in a media production class in London, where we were asked to brainstorm ideas for a video project. Later that year, after I'd been struggling to streamline and structure my 10,000-word dissertation on mental health and cinema, I remembered the act of drawing arrows and word bubbles on a piece of paper, and wondered if it might help. The outcome? This one exercise changed the course of my dissertation. Connections started to show up everywhere. My hand seemed to be dictated by a larger force. I was inspired, and it was an incredible feeling that had thus far remained just beyond my reach.
Simply put, a mind map is a way to brainstorm visually. We're familiar with charts and diagrams, such as wireframes and family trees, but this is a bit more free. It can help you by:
Laying out everything you already know, so that you can then identify gaps that need further research
Clearing your thoughts and transferring them without worrying about structure
Finding associations between seemingly disparate things
Figuring out the overarching form that can then be put into a different style (e.g. an outline) if needed
Sparking creativity and sharpening memory and intuition
And it's not just for writers! While I have used mind maps to plan complex articles, I turned to them with equal trust to evaluate the direction of my career. Essentially, anytime you feel like your thoughts are swirling beyond control, things aren't as clear-cut as a pro-con list, or if you're unsure where to begin, make a mind map.
INVITE EVERY THOUGHT (HOW TO BEGIN)
While there are softwares and online tools that can help you make more complex and elaborate mind maps for project management and collaboration, for the purpose of this article, I'll be focusing on a simpler method that I've found personally useful. All you need is:
A large blank sheet of paper (at least A4 is ideal)
ALL your thoughts
For me, the purpose of a mind map is to lay out flat everything that's going on in my head and figure out the bigger picture, not constrained by structure or linearity or full sentences. It helps when I do this by hand, and paper provides the freedom to draw in any direction. I can turn the sheet upside down. I can make arrows meander around words and find a new destination. It's important to use a large enough surface for this exercise. The more complex the project, the larger the paper. You could even consider using a whiteboard if you have access to one.
Half-baked thoughts? A problem I can't seem to solve? The beginning of an idea without an end? I put them all in there. Don't filter or discard any thought at first. The reason I emphasise not censoring anything is because I often end up finding out how two thoughts are related only after I've got them on paper. They appear to us for a reason, usually sparked by something we don't quite realise unless we examine it. Consider using a pen rather than a pencil so that you can't erase anything. Sometimes it may not make it into the final draft or plan, but at other times it might lead to something truly new and innovative.
What if you don't have that many thoughts? Don't worry. A mind map will still help. Its purpose is as much to generate ideas as to organise existing ones. Even if you only have a very vague glimmer of what you want to write about or the direction you want to take, just begin. You'll be surprised at how quickly you'll start linking things together, and the thoughts will begin to flow.
SYNAPSES (THE PROCESS)
It's usually best to begin by placing the main theme or concept in the centre of the sheet. You definitely know what this is, because it's what prompted you to try out this exercise in the first place. From here, start surrounding the central idea with branches flowing outward. Use words and short phrases rather than full sentences, and write down everything that comes to mind when you focus on the theme. Some people even like to draw images. Then examine each of these new words in turn, and write down what they inspire. Soon, branches will lead to more branches, spreading across the page like hundreds of nerve endings. Well, "hundreds" might be a stretch, but you get the idea. If there are thoughts you can't quite connect yet, put them closer to the margins. You can link – or discard – them later, and you'll know exactly where to look.
As a simple example, here's a smaller mind map I made a couple of years ago when I was commissioned by the Serendipity Arts Foundation to write an essay on the theme "Ex Natura". The brief called for a piece that explored the intersections of art, science and technology. I wanted to narrow down my focus within these vast terrains, so I began by:
Placing the topic in the centre of a blank sheet, branching out into the three main themes
Under "technology", I added categories such as video, installation, new media, digital art, robotic art, and photography
Under the main streams of science, I decided that botany seemed like an intriguing option
Having arrived at this conclusion, I began to research botanical art, specific artists and the varied and common themes I could explore through their work
The map grew. The result was an essay titled "The Botanical Imagination".
This was a fairly simple mind map, but sometimes that's all there is to it. Here's a great (and fun!) video by author Paula Brackston that demonstrates how she uses mind mapping to plan her novels, from plot points to character arcs. With her book The Sorcerer's Appendix as an example, she explains that she starts with the title or main theme of the book, branching out into the protagonists and what happens to them through the course of the novel. Backstories, subplots, significant places or settings, and secondary characters all find their way onto the map.
Similarly, if you wanted to figure out how to quit your job and potentially work for yourself, you might begin by surrounding this with your various skills and what you have experience in. Each of these might branch out further into aspects you enjoy, stuff that can actually help you make money, market demand, and so on. The possibilities are endless.
ORGANISED CHAOS (THE RESULT)
Looking at these mind maps, you might be thinking: how is this not more confusing?
Your map might look nothing like mine. It might be more orderly, with neat lines and boxes, or more like a flow chart. It might be very artistic, with colours and drawings. Maybe you intended to share it with people for collaboration. Whatever it looks like, a mind map is a starting point. It's a way to get moving, and it doesn't have to appear coherent.
In fact, another person's mind map might not help you much. I once had a professor who drew one on a whiteboard, with lots of ideas that we were throwing up for discussion, and lots of arrows. She seemed delighted by the productive class we'd had, but the rest of us had no idea what had just happened or how to turn it into notes! (Well, perhaps that was the lesson. She was a wonderfully unconventional teacher.)
Remember that scene in Gilmore Girls in which Richard is touring his granddaughter's room and refers to it as "organised chaos"? It's because it looks messy, but she knows exactly where everything is. By definition, organised chaos refers to something that seems disorderly but achieves good results. That's how I think of mind mapping. It may seem counter-intuitive to try and organise your thoughts by being so unstructured, but it works.
So what comes next? What do we do with the mind map once we've made it? How do we apply it to our writing or our life? There are several ways. Depending on what you're aiming to achieve, you could:
Make an outline: The mind map for my dissertation resulted in a chapter outline with three main sections and 3-4 chapters within each. The map helped me figure out what my broad focus was and what needed to go in or stay out.
Make a list: Now that you've drawn out everything, you can choose to be a bit more linear. List the most appealing career paths, the next steps, the most relevant artists, or the most compelling secondary characters, and do further research from there.
Highlight or colour code: When transferring the mind map into a different structure, it helps to highlight those parts of it that you've already incorporated. You probably won't end up using everything, and that's fine. But it's good to be able to see at a glance what you've used and what's on the backburner, in case you want to…
...Refer to it when you're stuck again: Brackston mentions in her video that the mind map for her book is also something she keeps returning to when she needs more ideas or hits a wall. You've already done all that thinking, so hold on to it for when you need it next. It might even grow.
And what if your mind map doesn't turn into the outline of your next book? Don't fret. Start over.
You can make as many mind maps as you like.
Tried a mind map but now want to talk things over? Take a look at my writing consultation or mentorships.