This post was originally published on Live to Write – Write to Live where I blog about writing and publishing with a diverse group of literary friends.
Do you sometimes sit down to write and find that you have no idea what you want to say? You have a general topic and a vague direction, but you just can’t get your head around where to start or how to organize your thoughts. Your deadline – professional or self-imposed – is looming like an executioner, and you’re fingers are frozen in hover mode over the keyboard as the cursor blinks incessantly, taunting you.
Have no fear – help is here.
I discovered mind mapping three years ago when a west coast client turned me onto some mind mapping software that he used for creating site maps. Invented in the 1960’s by Tony Buzan, mind mapping is a note taking and brainstorming method that allows you to think visually. Its free form style encourages an uninhibited flow of thoughts while its visual nature allows you to easily see connections between overall themes and specific ideas.
Um … isn’t that like outlining?
No. An outline is a linear structure with a rigid hierarchy. A mind map is more like a living ecosystem where all the creatures and environments are connected and interact with one another. As a recovering project manager, I’m intimately familiar with all kinds of inflexible forms of documentation: the project schedule, scope of work, budget, proposal, resource allocation overview, work breakdown structure … need I go on? Though such documentation has its place in business and project management, it doesn’t exactly inspire creativity.
Over the years, I’ve found that when I work with a mind map I solve my idea generation and organization problems much more quickly than if I used traditional means. This method opens my mind to possibilities and connections that I might never have discovered otherwise. And, it’s fun.
So, how do I do this mind mapping thing?
There are many software programs available, but – having used only one – I don’t feel equipped to recommend any particular version over another. Luckily, my favorite method of mind mapping doesn’t require any software. All you need is a blank piece of paper (preferably large) and your favorite pen (colored pencils and markers optional):
- Step 1: Take a deep breath, clear your mind, and relax your muscles (especially those pesky neck and shoulder muscles). This is a creative exercise – you need to prepare for your muse. Put your internal editor outside and lock the door.
- Step 2: Write your topic or central theme in the center of the paper. You can draw a shape around it if you like. You can also use an image to represent the topic.
- Step 3: Draw a wiggly line starting at your central topic and branching out across the paper. Write a sub topic (preferably just one word) either along the wiggly line or at the end of it. Notice how the wiggly lines start to look like a neuron. That’s intentional. Let’s get those synapses firing!
- Step 4: Repeat the wiggly line step – sometimes from the main topic and sometimes from one of your sub topics. If you see connections, you can draw lines between topics. If you see themes emerging, you can play with color coding. Have some fun. Doodle, scribble, write down things that seem crazy.
After a while, you’ll probably find that you’ve mind mapped yourself right off the page. You’ll have tons of fresh ideas to play with – many of which probably would never have occurred to you if you’d been using an old school outline. Even better, you’ll have an easy-to-read, visual map that makes the connections between ideas jump off the page. Now, the blank screen that was freaking you out looks like a fresh canvas and you feel like Monet on one of his more inspired days.
You can scale this exercise to fit any writing assignment – from a quick blog post to an article to a short story to an entire novel or non-fiction book. I guarantee that letting your visual, right-brain out to play will make the linear, left-brain task of writing easier.
Have you ever used mind mapping? How was the experience? If you’ve never tried it, will you?
Jamie Lee Wallace is a freelance marketing strategist and copywriter who works primarily with small and start-up businesses. Her focus is on content marketing and social media marketing because she loves helping her clients build profitable, long-term relationships with their customers. She believes in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings.