Starting a large writing project like a dissertation chapter or seminar paper can be incredibly intimidating. We've got plenty of ideas and passion to spare! But staring at a blinking cursor on an empty page invites discouragement. Where do you start? You've probably been in that same situation-- wishing that some words could just appear.
The problem is that not all of us generate ideas (or write, for that matter) in the same way. When someone asks you for directions to a restaurant, do you think of a numbered list of steps, each following the last in a logical sequence? Or would you rather draw a map? Our research papers, conference presentations, and lab reports follow a linear hierarchy: one idea below another, like that list of directions written in sequence. The process of generating ideas within that hierarchy, however, is anything but linear.
If you struggle with getting started on a large writing project, you're not alone. Prewriting is a crucial step in the writing process, and it's important that we develop healthy and productive strategies for going from the blank page to the first draft. Drafting isn't a one-step process-- it's a process of thinking, of drafting, revising, and thinking again. Developing prewriting habits tuned to your specific needs can help you be creative, ideate with purpose, and build and maintain momentum.
Mind mapping (sometimes called "clustering") is a method of visually representing ideas and information. Start with just one idea in the center of the page, and then draw connections outward to other ideas as you think of them. The process is simple-- take whatever you're focusing on and build connections outward. The joy of visual brainstorming is that it enables you to freely reorganize your ideas as you think and gain perspective on your project as a whole. Did you find, upon some reflection, that your ideas on behavioral economics don't belong next to your notes on Champaign-Urbana geese sightings? Simply drag the geese to their own section and keep going.
The key of mind mapping is that it allows a writer flexibility while discouraging us from thinking too much about the phrasing, layout, and sentence-level structure of our ideas. Once we're in the world of sentences (what Oscar Wilde called the "woulds and shoulds" of our writing), it can be hard to find our way back to that 10,000-foot view. If writing a paper is a kind of "linear thinking," then mind mapping is what author Tony Buzan calls "radiant thinking": shifting our one-dimensional understanding into two helps us see the connections between our ideas.
As you start mapping your ideas on the canvas, however, it spurs other ideas, and you think of things that you wouldn't have thought of before that perspective shift. Your brain will make connections that you might not have seen otherwise. Thinking through your problems visually can be very helpful-- especially if you face frustration when working with a linear outline.
Below are three reasons why you might consider trying out a mind map-- along with some tips for software and ideas for getting started!
Think Creatively About Your Project
The best thing about mind maps is that yours doesn't have to look like anyone else's. Try putting a personal spin on your diagrams with colors, shapes, and images! Free software like MindNode (for Mac) can automatically arrange your clusters if you're looking for a hands-off approach, and the many beautiful mind map templates on Canva are a great place to start if you're artistically inclined. I love to watch the beginning connections of a brainstorming session grow over time into a great interconnected web of concepts, fragments, and texts reflecting my ideas and arguments.
A changed relationship with time is another important benefit of mind mapping. Mind mapping lowers the barrier between you and your ideas, encouraging you to start early and reflect. Decreasing the pressure to get everything right on the first try helps us resist judging our ideas as well. If you find you struggle with perfectionism when it comes time to write an important draft, try thinking visually. When you're working with a mind map, you don't have to know how anything connects... yet.
Embracing Iterative Thinking
Embracing the ability to look at your ideas from multiple angles also helps us escape the pull of linear thinking. Mind mapping encourages us to explore by putting ideas into conversation with each other on a canvas. That conversation continues even after we've stopped looking at the mind map. As ideas come to us and we continue to develop arguments or concepts, we can return to the canvas to rearrange elements, revisit our structure, and reenter that conversation with the work. Like a painter working in layers over gesso, mind maps encourage us to layer the writing process, returning again and again to reflect and improve our thinking. Taking the time time to step back for a break enables us to see the whole canvas of our project and gain a fresh perspective on our writing habits.
John Moist is the Communications Specialist for the Graduate College. He holds degrees from Mount Aloysius College, Baylor University, and the University of Illinois. In his spare time he enjoys making music, playing board games, drinking espresso, and watching movies. He lives in Champaign, Illinois with his wife Kaitlyn and their cat Mildred.