As a junior-high student I learned two strategies for tackling writing projects: brainstorming and outlining. The former was free-form and messy; the latter tightly organized and formal. The idea was to brainstorm first and get all the ideas out of your head, without hesitation or editing. Imagine a dump truck depositing a payload of sand onto the ground. It’s effective, but you’ve got to do some clean-up work before you can move on with your project.
After sifting through to find the usable nuggets, the next step was to arrange them in a tidy outline, which served as the backbone of the final project. Today, I still do these things, but with one change. The brainstorm has given way to a mind map, which combines the avalanche of sand with a little more order, akin to an outline. In short, think of a mind map as an uncluttered brainstorm.
There’s lots of great software to help you create a mind map, though a pen and paper will do. Here’s how to create one, reap the benefits and find a software solution that works for you.
You’ll find many definitions of what a mind map is, but mine goes like this: A mind map is a diagram used to organize a brainstorm. It starts with a single word — often the topic or heart of your project — inside a circle. Supporting ideas are drawn around the main idea inside their own circles and connected with lines. As an example, here’s a mind map I used for this article (at left).
I started by writing “Mind Mapping” in the center, and then began to think about the topic. What about mind mapping do I want to share? That triggered the brainstorm and ideas came, like why do it, software available, organizational benefits, and so on. Each idea got its own “node” on the map. You’ll notice that “Software options” has three nodes of its own: Mac, PC and iOS. Those are referred to as “children,” as they all relate to the “parent” node, “Software options.” That’s where the organization comes into the process. Instead of generating a simple list during a brainstorm with no rhyme or reason to its order, a mind dump lets you group related ideas as you go, without hindering the brainstorm process. As you think of more ideas, just keep going, adding lines and nodes. Eventually you’ll reach the point of exhaustion and you’ll know you’re done.
At this point, I’ll review the diagram I produced and use it to create an outline and finally begin my writing project. This method really helps me feel on top of my project, doesn’t produce a jumbled mess that must be sorted into an outline, and results in a better final product every time.
As I said, there are many pieces of software available to help you create a mind map. I’ll introduce you to four: one for the Mac, one for Windows, and two for the iPad.
Mind Node (Mac, free lite version or $9.99 for Mind Node Pro)
My favorite mind mapping software for the Mac is Mind Node. It’s no-frills interface lets you focus on your project instead of getting stuck fiddling with colors and other little tweaks. Branches are color-coded (you can adjust with the colors if you like) and there are plenty of keyboard shortcuts if that’s your thing. Also, built-in Dropbox synchronization keeps your mind maps available across Macs or even with Mind Node Touch for iPad. Nearly every writing project I complete, from a book to a blog post, begins life as a mind map in Mind Node.
As for what’s different between the lite and pro versions, you’ll find features like image nodes, Wi-Fi sync between desktop and touch version, improved hyperlinks and improved printing options in the pro version.
Mindjet MindManager (Windows and Android; $399 for Windows version)
MindManager isn’t inexpensive but it’s extremely powerful. It will look familiar to anyone who has used Microsoft Office, as it uses a similar ribbon toolbar, which reduces the learning curve typical of new software, as does the built-in tutorial. Speaking of Office, there’s extensive support for Microsoft’s suite of apps built right in, and a number of export options, like PDF and Flash animations, making sharing easy, no matter what kind of computer your collaborators use.
There are two great options for the iPad. The first is MindNote Touch, the sibling to the desktop app. It works in much the same way, but “touching” your ideas — to use a market-friendly phrase — adds some fun. Thanks to Dropbox, you can sync mind maps you make on your iPad with your Mac and vice-versa, which is very convenient.
IThoughtsHD is another mind mapping app for the iPhone and iPad. There are a few features that set it apart but my favorite is the ease with which you can create nodes, child notes and sibling nodes. While MindNode requires you to move from the keyboard to the mind map itself to create and label nodes, iThoughtsHD lets you keep your hands on the keyboard at all times. For example, hitting the space bar three times in a row creates a new child mode. No need to move your hands up to the map. Likewise, hitting the Return key three times creates a sibling node. It’s very fast.
I use mind mapping for writing projects, but that’s hardly its only use. I’ve also created map to organize a vacation, chart a video project, plan for a wedding and more. Give it a try the next time you’ve got a project on your plate that’s large or small, business or personal. You still have that powerful brainstorming session, but will avoid sifting through the resulting mess before getting on with the rest of the work.