Guest Post: Mind Mapping for Writers, Part 3

Writer Hobie Swan, who writes for the creators of mind mapping software, wants to demonstrate how mind mapping as a concept can be useful to creative writers.  You can see part one and two of his series here. Now for the third and final part of his explanation of mind mapping with one particular kind of mind mapping software.

We’ve come to the last of three posts about using mind mapping for writing. The first article looked at using mind maps to brainstorming, capture and organize ideas. The second talked about focusing on an idea and adding details. This final article will look at how to use what you’ve entered into the map to help you write your article, play, novel or, yes, even your school or business report. Mind maps are content- and purpose-agnostic. Use them for anything that requires thinking, planning, organizing, or writing.

Once my wife and I made a very ornate mind map to guide a bathroom remodel project. On one map, we could bring together all the things we wanted to replace (sink, tub, towel racks, toilet, etc) along with hyperlinks to local and online sources for each of those things. We kept a log of all our emails and phone calls to the contractor, capturing the dates of and reasons for changes to our original plans. We took photos of installation issues, and attached them to specific branches in the map. And in the end, we had what some people refer to as a “knowledge object” of the entire remodel project. I’ll say more about that term later. Let’s get started on bringing the map to the written page.

Chapter 1: Filling in the details

When we last saw the map, I had added the symbols that would help me keep track of my writing progress.

Fig. 2: Mapping out key elements of the story

Now I’m ready to start fleshing out all of the items in my map outline of the play.

After the jump: completing your mind mapping.

To get started, I locate the “Notes” icon  among the other icons   in the upper right-hard part of the ConceptDraw screen. I find a branch I want to start writing about (describe salesman), highlight it, and click the icon. A Notes window pops up on screen, and I start writing:

Fig. 3: Using the Notes window to flesh out the key elements of the story

As I feel moved, I can jump around the map from branch to branch, using Notes windows to capture my thoughts and impressions. I don’t have to proceed linearly. I am guided by what I feel inclined to write about at that moment. As I move to the next branch, I’m careful to update the circular icons to keep track of my progress.

Chapter 2: Exporting my map

Now that I’ve created some copy, I’m going to export it to show you want it looks like in a normal word document. You can see how the writing I did in the Notes window is integrated into the outline the mind mapping software automatically generates (the highlighting is my own). As I add additional copy to the map, I continually re-export the map and watch with glee at the map becomes less and less outlining and more and more writing.

Fig. 4: How the Notes window looks when the map is exported to Microsoft Word Outline.

For writing projects, it’s usually best to export the map as a Microsoft Word Outline. But you can also export is as a PDF, PowerPoint, Web page, text outline, OPML file, or graphic file. You can export the map as a Microsoft Project file too—if  you’re into that kind of thing (we did this for our bathroom remodel so we could keep track of all the dates our contracting was promising us things would be done by). You can even export your map to your iPod.

Chapter 3: Chunking up the story

I noted in the first article how mind maps allow you to chunk your writing. Some people don’t like chunking. I do. I like the way you can bring up a notes window and focus your writing on one small part of the map. Doing so helps me concentrate on one thing at a time. I like the way I can export the map and, if I don’t like how the writing flows, I can go back to the map, move the branches and their notes to create a new flow, and re-export it all to see if it works better. And I like the way I can choose certain branches to export if, for instance, I need to create an abstract or want to pitch one aspect of the story to a particular media, it’s much easier for me to pick the chunks of text I want, export just those chunks, and fit them together than to go through a manuscript and cut and paste.

Chapter 4: Creating the Knowledge Object

I like the phrase “knowledge object” because, well… because I think it sounds pretty high-tech and mysterious. But also because it points to something larger, more encompassing than a document or file. The map we created for the bathroom remodel was a living object: It changed and grew as the project unfolded. It wasn’t just a list of data points: It contained our thoughts and ideas about the project, our emails with the contractor (and with the bank, I might add). By the time we  finished the remodel, the map represented so many different aspects of the project that “knowledge object” seemed like a sufficiently all-encompassing word to signify this one… thing… that was able to contain so much of what went on in the course of the remodel.

And it can do the same for writing. I used mind mapping to write a 50,000-word biography of two people. I mapped out the chronology of their lives. I used visual symbols to highlight the most important events. I hyperlinked to web sites that discussed the things they did in the world, to pictures of their families, their employees, the sites of their challenges and victories. With such an in-depth project, I wasn’t able to do all of my writing in the map. But I did enough to help me get started with a lot of depth and key points to put into each chapter. And I even used the map to change the flow, to move a chapter that I had in chronological order up to the front of the book to add dramatic interest. After I finished the book, I looked back and wondered how else I would have kept all those facts straight—all of the dates and times and events, the settings and the emotion and the lessons learned. In map form, it was just so easy to quickly search the map for the time period or event I was interested in, open up that branch and drill down to find the information, document or website I needed. I also came to appreciate how easy the map made it to chunk together parts of the story to pitch to the media, bloggers, and for other writing purposes.

Writing methods are as different as the people doing the writing. No one size fits all. But I do think that mind mapping is such a protean tool that many people find it a vast improvement over traditional ways of writing. The fact that a map allows you to instantly toggle between the overall arc of story and the most finely nuanced details—that alone can take much of the pain out of writing. I hope you give it a try.

Hobie Swan

Hobie Swan has been a writer and reporter for the past 20 years. He has been a producer for the highly regarded CBS radio host, Charles Osgood, and produced and directed award-winning documentaries. He has written one book ( and countless articles for San Francisco Bay Area and national newspapers and magazines. He has worked for two mind mapping companies, and is currently a writer for CS Odessa and its blog ( CS Odessa develops ConceptDraw MINDMAP, ConceptDraw PROJECT, and ConceptDraw PRO, a business graphics application.

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