Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Mind maps as a writing tool

with 8 comments

Mind maps—that is, informal diagrams with different words, phrases, or images clustered around a single central idea—are such a useful tool for writers and creative artists that they’ve become something of a cottage industry. I’ve been doing them for ten years, and never start a writing project without one. For Kamera, I probably generated upwards of 150 different maps, while a novelette or short story might have five or ten.

It isn’t hard to see why mind maps work. Since they’re loosely organized, with hierarchy giving way to a random flow of ideas, they’re naturally suited to loose, right-brained thinking. The process of writing with a pen slows down the rational left brain so that the right hemisphere can catch up. And, perhaps most crucially, a mind map provides a record of what might otherwise have been an unstructured brainstorming session. (Even the best idea in the world is no good unless it is promptly written down.)

I’m not going to go into the specifics of how to create a mind map, since the process is different for everyone, and there’s plenty of instruction available online. For creative writers in particular, my advice is to do mind maps in three stages: one or more large mind maps for the overall plot, one for each important character, and one for each major section—for example, the three acts of a screenplay. My own preference is to also do one for each chapter, with additional ones for large set pieces, but this is a matter of taste.

Mind maps can be done on paper of any size, but I’ve found that larger is better, especially when you’re laying out the first outlines of a short story or novel. Later on, as you begin to drill down to individual scenes and characters, smaller pieces of paper may be easier to manage. Here, for example, is a view of the notebook pages that I used to brainstorm character details for “The Last Resort,” a novelette that appeared in the August 2009 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact:

And here are the initial mind maps I made for “Kawataro,” a novelette scheduled to appear in Analog sometime next year:

A number of software programs exist for generating mind maps, but I’ve found that pen and paper is by far the best way. The physical act of writing tends to slow down my thoughts, forcing me to consider each word as I write it, until it seems as if the pen is doing the thinking. (This forced slowness is an advantage that we lose when typing, especially in Microsoft Word.)

As powerful as mind maps are in themselves, they’re even more useful when paired with what I like to call intentional randomness. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

December 13, 2010 at 8:41 am

8 Responses

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  1. Interesting… your mind maps look very different to mine, not least because they’re very neat. Mine are variously scrawled on the backs of envelopes (literally), written in an old notebook or done as tables within Word documents. Plus, once I start writing the process tends to throw up issues I hadn’t considered and then deal with on the fly. I’ll be looking out for your other posts though as this is all cool stuff.

    On intentional randomness – I’ll come back and read your post on that. I find this useful as well and sometimes employ ‘Oblique Strategies’, a card-based and now also internet-based system developed by Brian Eno among others for developing creative solutions to issues.

    Jon Vagg

    December 13, 2010 at 9:10 am

  2. Oh, and while I think about it, congratulations on getting into Analog!

    Jon Vagg

    December 13, 2010 at 9:11 am

  3. Thanks so much! It’s true that my mind maps are a little neater than average, but that’s because I’m a deeply left-brained person, even when I’m trying to be otherwise.

    And Oblique Strategies sounds fascinating. I’ll be sure to check it out!


    December 13, 2010 at 4:33 pm

  4. I find Oblique Strategies occasionally useful. There’s a Wikipedia entry on the topic. You’ll get quite Delphic advice such as ‘Consult other sources’ or ‘go to an extreme, come part way back’. It’s the process of thinking through what these could mean in the context of whatever I’m writing, I think, that occasionally gives a sudden inspiration.

    Your Kawataro mind-map looks so detailed and calligraphic you could probably publish it as a series of photos, as a completely separate piece!

    Jon Vagg

    December 13, 2010 at 4:52 pm

  5. Interesting stuff! For a while, I was using a similar deck of cards (Roger Von Oech’s Whack Pack), but haven’t done so recently. I will check out the Oblique Strategies cards, though.

    And I’m glad you’re enjoying the mind maps! I spend more time on them than I’d like to admit, but have no one to show them to. (I guess that’s why I started this blog.)


    December 13, 2010 at 5:17 pm

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