Mindmapping for writing – what people get wrong

Reading time: About 4 minutes

Did you learn about mindmapping in high school? Your teacher may not have told you that mindmapping for writing is one of the best ways to use the tool…

When people use terms like “writer’s block” or “resistance” or “procrastination,” I have a ready answer for them. “Try mindmapping for writing,” I advise.

The technique is not only fun but also easy to use. And if anyone tells me mindmapping doesn’t work for writing, I suspect that they’re probably doing something wrong. In fact, I have a standing invitation to members of my Get It Done accountability group to scan and email me their mindmaps that aren’t working. Generally, I can diagnose the reason in a couple of minutes. 

Here are the most common problems I find:

  1. They use mindmapping software. While a number of software corporations have made a great deal of money producing mindmapping software, I don’t suggest you use it. Evidence shows that the relaxed, devil-may-care attitude you need for mindmapping is at odds with the demands of sitting in front of a keyboard. (For more information, check out a  marvellous and brief — it’s just 10 minutes long — Clive Thompson video.) You want to engage your creative brain when you’re mindmapping and a paper and pen will feel more relaxing to you. The only time to use mindmapping software is so you can copy a mindmap you’ve created by hand and save it for later use. 
  2. They use paper that’s too small. You don’t want to feel cramped or constrained while you’re mindmapping.  For this reason, 11 x 17 paper is generally the best size to use. It’s large enough to give you lots of room to express your thoughts but not so large as to be daunting. If you’re doing a really big project however, (say, planning a book or a dissertation), unprinted upon newsprint, available at many craft stores, or packing paper may be a better choice.
  3. They don’t ask a question. Many mindmapping instructors tell people to write their topic in the centre of the page. I don’t. Instead, I always recommend starting with a question. Why? Topics are often boring. Questions, on the other hand, are provocative. If you hear a question — even if it’s one you’ve asked yourself — your brain is hard-wired to want to answer it. As well, questions tend to be more focused than topics, meaning that you’ll be finding a more interesting and specific way into your story. 
  4. They don’t start in the centre of the page. I see many mindmaps where the topic/question appears off to the left or the right or wandering down toward the bottom of the page. Don’t do this! You’re putting the question on the page first, right? So, it should be easy to ensure it ends up more or less in the middle. This will leave you maximum room to put your answers all around the page, in any spot that strikes your fancy. It’s important for you to have this sense of freedom and space when you’re mindmapping. 
  5. They answer questions with more questions. If you have more than one question, save it for another mindmap. Your original question calls for an answer. (If my husband asks me a question and I answer with another question‚ or vice versa, one of us usually says, “Are we really playing a game of questions only?
  6. They don’t put everything in a bubble. When you mindmap, be sure to draw a circle around every ‘answer.’ This is like putting icing on a cake, a garnish on a plate, or an ornament on your mantlepiece. It’s prettier and neater and it’s a sign that you have finished that answer and you’re ready to move onto the next one. 
  7. They provide too much detail. Your mindmap should not be a series of mini-essays. Your answers or bubbles should be no more than (roughly) four or five words and fewer than that is A-OK. I often say that mindmaps should be like labels on coat hooks in a kindergarten classroom. Short and sweet. They are memory jogs for you and are not meant to be anything more than that. Don’t tire yourself out writing your mindmap. Save some of your energy for the actual writing.
  8. They don’t mindmap more than once. There is no rule saying that one mindmap = one piece of writing. If you finish your mindmap and fail to have what I describe as an “aha!” experience — or the inspiration you need to start writing — then you should immediately do another mindmap. Use whatever ideas you generated from your first mindmap to come up with a new question for a second one. And if that one doesn’t inspire, do a third (and fourth, fifth or sixth) if necessary. Mindmaps are fast. You should be able to do each one in three to five minutes. 
  9. They don’t get creative enough with it. Mindmaps can and should include all sorts of stuff that’s more interesting than mere facts. Try to include stories and metaphors as well. (Ask yourself: How can I answer my question with a story/example/anecdote? How can I answer it with a metaphor?) And try some creative ways to prepare your mindmaps as well. For some people, putting the “bubbles” on individual sticky notes is a great way to mindmap. You can spread them out over a wall that way and then move them around easily. (I suggest you take photographs of any arrangements you particularly like.)
  10. They don’t ask themselves meta questions. One of the best ways to use mindmapping is to ask yourself questions about YOUR writing process. For example, you might do mindmaps on any of the following questions: Why am I having so much difficulty fleshing out this particular character? Why am I procrastinating so much? How could I organize my book/dissertation in a more useful way?
  11. They don’t doodle. Doodling is not an enemy of attention or a waste of time. Instead, it’s a valuable habit that allows you to increase your focus and expand your creativity. Doodling is particularly useful to you while you’re mindmapping. I’ve described why, here. 

If you’ve tried mindmapping for writing before and figured it just didn’t work for you, please try again, following the guidelines above. And if you’ve never tried it, don’t lose any more time. Give it a whirl today. It should help you defeat “writer’s block,” “resistance” and “procrastination” all in one go. 

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Looking for some help with developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. Deadline for the group starting Nov. 1 is this Thursday, Oct. 21st. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week addressed how to write a better college application essay. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Have you ever used mindmapping? How did you find it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy! 

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