Mind-mapping is a non-linear planning technique that suits students who prefer to work out their ideas more holistically and visually. There are a number of ways in which you can use this technique: using pen and paper, post-it notes, or one of the various software tools available. Mind-mapping enables you to create a more visual overview of the structure of your writing, and to experiment with it more fluidly before you begin to set it down in writing as a draft. Like other planning techniques, mindmapping requires careful thought about the relationship between the points to be made, to avoid becoming a loosely ordered collection of observations.
Step 1: brainstorming
The first stage of mind-mapping is unstructured, and consists of brainstorming the points you want to make, which you have established from your reading and your own ideas. This is useful to get an overview of the planned contents of your essay and see how wide-ranging it is, if it fits the question and if some of your ideas have been worked out in greater detail than others. It might be helpful to write the title or question of your essay in the middle of the page as a focus and reminder. At this point, it doesn’t matter in what order you generate these points, but it is helpful to do so in a flexible way. You can do this using paper and pen, although pencil might be better in terms of flexibility and reorganising the points at a later stage, or you could use a small whiteboard, or post-it notes which can be easily moved around, or one of the mind-mapping software packages which allow you to create ideas in free-floating, movable ‘bubbles’ anywhere on the computer screen (see later in this section for information about mind-mapping software).
Step 2: grouping
The second stage involves establishing the relationships between the points. Group together the points which seem particularly connected or relevant to each other in some way. You could use different colour highlighters if you have been mindmapping with pen and paper or, if you have used post-it notes or mindmapping software, you could physically group the points together. At this stage, it is also helpful to distinguish which are the major points (the sections of your essay) and which are the minor ones, and part of the major points (perhaps a paragraph or even sentence). To help you express these relationships, draw lines connecting each of the points to each other, branching off the central idea (your title or question) to the larger points, and then into the smaller points that grow out of them or break those points down.
Step 3: mapping
Once you have established these groupings, which will form the basis of the sections or paragraphs of your essay, then you can create the final mindmap which will be the basis of your plan. This stage involves ordering the groupings you created previously in a logical way. Mindmapping helps you explore an argument in a holistic, non-linear way, but ultimately, the written essay is linear; one paragraph comes after the next, down the page. Moving from non-linear to linear format is perhaps the most difficult stage in mindmapping.
Experiment with numbering (or physically moving and ranking onscreen) the main sections in the order that they should most logically appear in the essay, and then each of the sub-points in the order they will appear in their sections. In the mindmap format, you can experiment with different orders without having to reorganise the whole plan, as you would with linear techniques.
You could also rework your mindmap as a more linear flow diagram. The difference is that it is organised more hierarchically, encouraging you to think about the order of the information as it is displayed on the page. The central question or title is placed at the top or left-hand side of the page, and the points to be made are arranged in order from top to bottom or left to right.
It might help to talk yourself (or a friend) through the order to test if it works and see if you can verbalise the links you are making.
Here is an example of a mindmap plan for the essay title Discuss the power of the eye in Frankenstein:
Here is an example of a more linear version plan for the same essay title:
There are a number of software packages which enable you to create flexible mindmaps to aid in planning and structuring your essays. Below are some of the most commonly used ones, but you could search online for more, or, if you have a disability, you could consult an adviser at the Disability Resource Centre.