At Researcher’s Gateway we try to bring to you some helpful tools for researching and writing, and this week I bring you the idea of Mind Mapping.
Mind mapping is a method for organizing information that I have been using since I was in grade school. While my teachers always focused much more heavily on other methods for organizing ideas, especially outlines, I always found mind mapping the most useful. It is extremely flexible and open to creative thinking.
Mind mapping is a technique particularly useful for visual thinkers, as well as for people who tend to think in non-linear fashion. I use it as a brainstorming technique whenever I get stuck on a project. It is a great way to organize information before I write it. It also works wonderfully as diagrams in my finished documents to visually display the relationship between ideas.
Creating a Mind Map
When I create a mind map, I put the topic I’m working on in the center of the page and circle it. I then draw lines off of that central circle to other circles around concepts that spin off that central idea. Then as my ideas branch out, I create more branches with more circles.
For example, if I were writing a paper on the Bubonic plague, I might start with the following:
This, then, gets you started with your main premise in the middle, and the first direct ideas (thoughts) can spoke off from it. Try to keep each circle to a keyword or phrase. You can always expand on those concepts later. For this, shorter is better.
I can build on this, spinning ideas off of those starting concepts, and it can expand to this:
As you see here, what I then do it take each of those secondary ideas, and expand them individually into a tertiary group, and you can keep going as much as you have space, or you can then take them to their own page and start a fresh Mind Map for them.
There is no right or wrong way to make a mind map.
Since I use this tool to get the ideas down at this point, I’m not worried about perfection. In fact, I usually make mine on scrap paper. For larger projects, I sometimes use really big pieces of paper so I don’t run out of room. Or, as Galen is always suggesting, you can just move to another diagram.
Some people use different colored inks or highlighters to further group ideas or highlight key words. I have seen a variant where instead of having the ideas in circles, as I do, they write a word or short phrase on the lines, branching out from the central idea.
When I am brainstorming with a mind map, I just write down ideas as they come to.
I don’t have to use everything I write down. The idea is just to use this as a tool. Write down anything that comes to mind. I bounce around the mind map as ideas come to me. It is similar to the brainstorm technique of writing down word associations, only in a more visual formatting.
If I’m using a mind map to organize a paper, the clusters group ideas into what will eventually be paragraphs, sections, and even chapters. This can also help me see holes in my research. I might need more information on social change, or I can add a question mark by the dates so I know to double check them. I may even decide that my initial paper topic (Bubonic Plague) is much too broad. In that case, I would pick a subtopic to focus on, like a specific pandemic, and draw a new diagram focusing on it.
I often go through the diagram after I draw it and number the main clusters in the order that I intend to write about them. For example, if this were for our upcoming Historical Diseases and Epidemics research, I might label Causes #1, Symptoms #2, First Pandemic as #3 and so forth. If I’m not sure what order I want to approach the subject, I sometimes put the numbers on sticky notes so that I can move them around.
For a number of reasons, I make most of my mind maps electronically these days.
Electronic mind maps are both easier to read and easier to edit. I use Inspiration 9, a program designed for education purposes.
Inspiration is a versatile tool.
In addition to mind mapping allows you to produce a variety of diagrams and outlines. It is easy to use and available for both Mac and Windows platforms.There are many other programs out there as well that can be used similarly, although I haven’t used them. If you choose to invest in a mind mapping software, I recommend getting one that is useful for multiple types of diagrams.
Writing papers can be daunting. Mind mapping my ideas helps me break the paper down into chunks that are much more manageable. I hope that you find it as useful a tool as I have.
Get your copy of Inspiration 9 here: