Mapping Your Mind With -->

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Mapping Your Mind With


I am not a visual learner. That’s what I told myself, anyway, when studying for college exams with a friend and attempting to make sense of the crazy bubbles that comprised his history notes. He tried to convince me that the mess of scribbles he called a “mind map” was an excellent way of note-taking, but I stubbornly stuck to my chronological, college-ruled list.

A mind map begins with a key concept or idea written in the center of a piece of paper or electronic space, and the idea is usually enclosed in a bubble. Related ideas, also in bubbles, branch out from that center idea. As the writer adds more and more ideas, making additional branches and sub-branches, the writer can also use lines or arrows to connect ideas. I realized the beauty of those interconnected bubbles years later when, older and wiser, I tried mind mapping for a graduate school assignment. If I had used a mind map back in college and been able to better visualize the relationships between the events, people, and social movements that I was studying, I might have scored better on that history exam.

To create a mind map, you can use good old pen and paper or a free electronic mapping tool like, which allows you to color code your ideas and easily add, delete, and rearrange bubbles. I’ll use screenshots from here to show how a mind map begins and develops.

So, let’s say you’re writing a paper on bullying in U.S. high schools. This main topic goes in a bubble in the center of the page:
Mind map bubble example
Next, start branching off of that central bubble with related ideas. What comes to mind when you think about bullying in U.S. high schools? What do you know from course work, preliminary research, or personal experience? For example, the topic might make you think about prevention programs, effects of bullying, and different types of bullying. These subtopics can each go in a bubble that branches off from the main bubble, like this:
Mind map example
Then, keep branching off of these bubbles with additional ideas, categories, subcategories—anything you can think of that’s related, including words, phrases, facts, quotations, questions, examples, and sources. Pretty soon, your mind map will start looking like this:
More developed mind map example
As your mind map grows, use arrows to connect your ideas. You might first think about sharing photos as a type of bullying done through text messaging, for example, but then realize that bullying through Facebook can also involve sharing photos. Even though the “Sharing photos” bubble branches off of the “Texting” bubble, you can link “Facebook/social networks” to “Sharing photos” with an arrow.

mind map example detail
Creating a mind map can be a freeing way to capture and connect all of your ideas on a topic. Even if you’re more comfortable with a traditional outline, you might find—as I did—that using a different form of brainstorming and note-taking can help expand your thinking and see connections you might have otherwise missed. Also, looking at the overall structure of your mind map can help you determine if you need to broaden or narrow your topic to match the scope of your assignment.

Next time you need to choose a paper topic, take notes, or beat a writer’s block, try this exercise:
  1. Get out a piece of paper or sign up for (you can save up to three mind maps with a free account).
  2. Put your main idea in a bubble at the center of the page or space.
  3. Spend 10 minutes building your mind map, creating additional bubbles and sub-bubbles that branch off of your main idea.
  4. Pause, and look at your whole map. Draw lines or arrows to connect related ideas.
Here are a couple tips to keep in mind:
  • Use words and phrases, rather than full sentences, in your bubbles.
  • Don’t worry about your map looking professional—it’s okay to go a little wild, and it’s okay if no one else understands how to read your map. Your map only needs to make sense to you.
  • Don’t limit yourself! The more bubbles, the better. Getting your ideas down on paper (or a screen) can spark others. Afterward, you can always delete bubbles that do not belong.

Mind mapping is not just for academic writing. It can be a helpful tool in the workplace, too. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on how one financial advisory firm is using mind mapping to help clients negotiate financial planning.

Anne Shiell
A former teacher of college composition courses, Writing Instructor Anne Shiell is a self-described punctuation geek.


  1. I like this idea! i really liked the way that you illustrated it - and your comment about not keeping it neat but going a little wild. Thanks for sharing, Anne.


  2. You're welcome, Judy! Thanks for commenting!
    - Anne

  3. Hi Shalin Siriwaradhana! Thanks for the tip regarding mind map software.