What is mind mapping and how can it help your writing?

Updated: Jul 12

Do you ever have an idea for a piece of writing (the topic for a blog post or the main character relationships for a short story, for instance) but then get stuck on developing the meat of the idea?

For me, it’s like, I know the idea is there in my brain, and I had an idea of what I wanted to do when I pitched it, but when faced with the blank page, I hit a wall.

It can be easy to chalk this up to writer’s block, walk away from the keyboard and decide that you’ll write the story or the article another day... when you’re inspired.

But let me tell you a secret: the odds of inspiration hitting you like a blinding bolt of lightning are pretty slim. And you’re only cheating yourself if you think that you have to wait for chance, or the universe, or whatever, as if you have no power over your own work or process.

Brainstorming and List Making

This is where techniques like brainstorming and lists work.

I'm a big fan of list making. I’ll write something like, “The secret in Arlo’s backstory is...,” at the top of the page, and then force myself to think of 10 possible secrets that Arlo might have.

Or, I’ll write, “10 takeaways for readers about list making,” and then list 10 techniques for really making listing work (the finished article may focus on five, or take a different structure altogether, depending on how many items on the list are workable).

But what can you do if these techniques don't work?

Writing is always about controlling information.

In fiction, it’s deciding where to put the big revelations so that readers are prepared for them psychologically, but still gasp.

In nonfiction, it’s about making sure concepts are understood clearly when introduced, so that when you build on them, readers can follow you to your well-crafted conclusion.

I don’t always think of information in the order in which it eventually gets presented, and I think that’s why list making doesn’t always give me the ability to get what’s in my brain on the page.

Sometimes I need to think about the information in a nonlinear fashion, and that’s where mind mapping and spider webbing come in.

Making a spider web diagram is the simpler of the two methods.

How to make a spider web diagram

In order to start spider webbing your story, write the main topic of what you plan to write about in the center of your paper and draw an oval around it.

Write ideas that connect to this main idea around the central topic, placing each inside an oval, and drawing lines connecting the ovals to show how the ideas connect to each other. This allows you to follow where your brain wants to go when exploring the idea quickly, before you forget any pieces of it.

This stream-of-consciousness technique allows for nonlinear thinking. It's often what gets me unstuck.

Say that the listing exercise above helped me figure out what Arlo’s backstory secret really was, but I’m not sure how knowing that piece of information is going to affect the story I’m writing. I can create a spider web around the central idea of, “How does knowing this secret change the relationship between Felicity and Arlo?”

Somewhere in the ring of ideas, or in the sub-ideas coming off of that initial ring, I’m going to find something one or both characters are going to do, which can then have consequences that will launch me into the story.

If you are not a fan of doing things on paper, you can use flowchart software to make this kind of diagram. There are a number of free options, but I use Diagram Ring.

Below is a spider web diagram with some ideas about Romeo and Juliet.

diagram made for writing technique of spider webbing
A spider web diagram for Romeo and Juliet

How to create a mind map

A mind map is, in some ways, similar to a spider web diagram.

In mind mapping, you still have the radial nonlinear design, but there is more hierarchical structure in a mind map, and it contains visual elements.

There are “rules” to mind mapping that are designed to take the logical left hemisphere of the brain that likes keywords and emphasizing points and force it to play nice with the right hemisphere, as you create a map that is a piece of art.

This can unlock creativity in ways that can blast you past sticking points and reinvigorate enthusiasm for your project. I find this technique works better for me when I need to build something more complicated than a spider web can handle.

When you create a mind map, instead of writing out full sentences or phrases, concentrate on keywords.

Imagine you are doing search engine optimization for your project, or hashtagging a social media post.

Use larger letters and bolder colors for words/images that should have more emphasis. Decide if specific colors correlate to different aspects of your idea, which can help you separate the threads of thought mentally.

Find photos or sketch images that represent the different aspects of the idea. Is there something in any of these images that springboard out to new ideas?

Ideas should all radiate out from the central word/image, but don’t try connecting the spokes, or allowing ideas to circle back on themselves.

Here is a mind map I mocked up for a hypothetical article on what to consider if you are going to get a cat.

mind map writing technique diagram
Concentrate on keywords when creating a mind map

Whatever method you use, just getting something about your project down on paper will help get the ideas and creativity flowing and get you moving in the right direction.

Amber Royer writes the CHOCOVERSE comic telenovela-style foodie-inspired space opera series, as well as the BEAN TO BAR MYSTERIES. Amber has been teaching creative writing to writers of all genres for over a decade in North Texas, experience summed up in her STORY LIKE A JOURNALIST: A WORKBOOK FOR NOVELISTS. She also freelances as an author coach and nonfiction writer. Find her Instagramming about coffee, chocolate and writing