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I attended a writing course recently and was introduced to a concept that is not new, but was certainly new to me: Mind-mapping.

I grew up in the age of “The Term Paper: A Manual and Model.” Raise your hand if you still have your copy! I do! It was an 8 1/2 by 11 inch volume with an orange and white cover, and was required reading in order to type (as in on a manual Smith-Corona typewriter, in my case) your term paper in the correct format and pass any number of junior high, high school and college courses.

Preparatory to writing the paper, of course, was research. The vast majority of my teachers and professors insisted that research be conducted using 3 x 5? index cards which were turned in along with the final paper. We also had to submit the outline that we allegedly developed as we reviewed our research and organized our thoughts in preparation for actually writing the term paper.

I am making a public confession: The index cards and outline were the last things I wrote. I created them only after I had the term paper finished and ready to turn in. Yes, I phonied them up in order to make the teacher think that I had followed his/her system of preparation and drafting the final product.

I have no problem organizing a final product into outline or chapter format, but, as the instructor of the course I just took pointed out, human beings do not think, for the most part, in a linear fashion. We have bursts of ideas and if the process were to be described in terms of a shape, it would most certainly be circular.

So she advocated the use of mind-mapping, which is the process of creating a diagram representing one’s thoughts and ideas as a means of planning what to write. Wikipedia describes a mind-map as “an image-centered diagram that represents semantic or other connections between portions of information. By presenting these connections in a radial, non-linear graphical manner, it encourages a brainstorming approach to any given organizational task, eliminating the hurdle of initially establishing an intrinsically appropriate or relevant conceptual framework to work within.”

In its simplest form, a mind-map is comprised of a circle in the middle of the page containing the writer’s main thesis which is connected to smaller, surrounding circles via broken or solid lines. Into those smaller circles are inserted sub-topics and they can, again, be connected to more circles. Key phrases, terms or ideas elucidating the main and sub-topics can be jotted on the lines. As more ideas come to the writer, they can be noted using just one or two words — whatever is sufficient to later jog one’s memory so that the thought can be included in the final piece. Maps can be connected to each other as a process of expanding and elaborating upon the seminal concepts.

As the instructor explained the process to the class, I realized that, without knowing it, I have been mind-mapping my entire life. I just haven’t been doing in on paper. I’ve been doing it in my head. Research materials are organized in piles according to topic and I retrieve key ideas or quotes via different color highlighting and notes jotted in margins.

Since taking the course, I have been experimenting with the method — on paper. The beauty of it is that it does not require a lot of time . . . as explained above, ideas are memorialized with just a word or two, or, perhaps, a short phrase. A numbering or lettering system to cite to research sources completely eliminates the need for those pesky index cards or any other intermediary step.

Because the various circles representing topics and sub-topics are free-form, it is easy to order and re-order your thoughts by simply numbering or lettering them. You can easily assess the effectiveness of the order in which you plan to present your themes or ideas by looking at the map and, as I always do, essentially composing the piece in your head before you ever put your fingers on the keyboard.

Rather than lugging around all of your research materials or a cumbersome multi-page outline-in-progress setting forth all the details of what you plan to write, a mind-map can be any size you want and carried with you in your pocket, purse, notebook, planner . . . even tucked into the holster of your Blackberry. An idea can be added in seconds when it comes to you in the midst of a meeting, conversation, while working on another project . . . In fact, the maps don’t have to be created on paper at all. You can create them on your computer, using, among other programs, PowerPoint. So if you are working on something else when a thought or idea comes to you, all you have to do is toggle between programs or windows in order to add it.

As I’ve been toying with this approach to writing, I’ve discovered what I believe are the four main benefits that can be derived from it.

1. Organization — For writers who struggle to organize their thoughts into a cohesive product that flows logically from one concept to the next, this is a fool-proof approach. Looking at the map, it is easy to see when a topic or idea is out of place or order. Even better, it helps you see the intersection and overlap or, conversely, contrast(s) between various pieces of information, allowing you to clarify and emphasize those points in your final written product.

2. Refinement of critical thinking — I see this as the most important benefit. Although I don’t write fiction, I can envision this system working really well for those who do. The logical progression — or lack thereof — of the storyline can be tracked. Likewise, if you are writing a “how to” or other explanatory piece, you will quickly be able to see if you have left out a step or need to expand the narrative in order to make your readers follow and understand the sequence of steps, events, etc.

For folks who must have their written product critiqued or reviewed before it is published, this is a great way to explain your thought process to your supervisor or editor. Rather than burdening that individual with a cumbersome outline or, worse, clumsy first draft, a map can serve as the foundation for the collaborative process, giving the reviewer insight into the writer’s thoughts and facilitating a productive and time-saving discussion about any analytical short-comings before valuable time is wasted on numerous unacceptable drafts.

3. Elimination of fear — Too often, we sit down in front of the keyboard and go into panic mode. Many people look at a blank computer screen as fearfully as they would a firing squad. Writing is an anxiety-inducing, demoralizing activity for many people and their first few drafts reflect their consternation. This method can empower reluctant writers because, by the time they sit down to begin drafting a document, they have not only performed the necessary research, they have organized their thoughts and provided themselves, literally, with a road map to be followed as they write. If a conversation such as the one described above has already taken place and the map has been refined, so much the better.

4. Enhances time management and productivity — By the time you actually begin drafting your document, you are thoroughly prepared to write and, hopefully, emboldened by the knowledge that you are ready to fill up that blank computer screen with meaningful text. The result is less rewriting, fewer drafts and a more productive use not only of your time, but that of your supervisor, reviewer or editor, as well.

This week, try out this technique and see if it works for you. Or if you have used it previously, leave a comment and let me know if it proved effective for you, as well as why or why not. I will be anxious to receive your feedback!

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