We all use writing for work, whether it’s our actual job title or we simply need to communicate intelligently to others. This post focuses on a writing project but can be used for any mind mapping or concept mapping project. Mind maps focus on one word or idea, while concept maps connect multiple ideas and focus on the relationships between.

You may remember using mind maps in school or for a personality or career exercise. They are great for expressing thoughts and getting ideas out quickly. Even if you don’t use it to connect relationships at a high level, the exercise itself is of significant value. It reveals more about our inner complex thoughts than more linear exercises. Mind maps are great for making connections, and can then morph to a more complex form. Here’s a simple map I made after watching Westworld. (I kept it basic to prevent any spoilers. 🙂 )

According to Wikipedia: “A mind map is a diagram used to visually organize information. A mind map is hierarchical and shows relationships among pieces of the whole. It is often created around a single concept, drawn as an image in the center of a blank page, to which associated representations of ideas such as images, words and parts of words are added. Major ideas are connected directly to the central concept, and other ideas branch out from those.”

Mindmaps are great for analyzing content, but what about creating content? How can we use this concept for brainstorming? I’m using a mind map to write my next book. Nothing is worse than a blank page when trying to write, so a mind map is fantastic at getting your ideas down without committing to anything. I typically will have an idea, and maybe some loose idea of a character and/or plot, but can’t seem to get going on a scene. By brainstorming freely with a few variables I can start expanding those ideas into a whole world of possibilities for the story, all the while keeping a structured overview approach.

The first step is to focus on what you are most passionate about. In this example, it’s about my story as a whole. I branch out with sections: Characters, Themes, Settings, and Plot. You can use this as a template, but I find that I like to just dive in, and then create the connections that are useful for me to explore.

(Example of breaking down the plot, characters, etc.)

I could stop there, but I’m not quite done. So, I expand the board even further and lose the “center” feel to it. This starts to look like a concept map, where different ideas and concepts connect with each other, without a specific sense of hierarchy and more about the relationships between. This is especially helpful when I feel my plot or storyline is feeling trite and I need a deeper construct that fully encompasses my characters, their destinies, and the point of the story.

According to Wikipedia: “Mind maps differ from concept maps in that mind maps focus on only one word or idea, whereas concept maps connect multiple words or ideas. Also, concept maps typically have text labels on their connecting lines/arms. Mind maps are based on radial hierarchies and tree structures denoting relationships with a central governing concept, whereas concept maps are based on connections between concepts in more diverse patterns. However, either can be part of a larger personal knowledge base system.”

What’s great about this approach is that I can create new boards and simply “copy cards with data” as a shortcut to create new boards that focus on a specific direction that I’ve created here. If I’m not sure my plot is really defined in a certain area, it becomes pretty obvious with lack of offshoots and I know right away which section to work on.

But here’s what really powerful: I’m using this to brainstorm and create, not just organize things. What I love about Cardsmith is the ability to grow my map and zoom out, just when things are looking a little too tight. I can keep adding and connecting to my cards in order to get my thoughts out, without getting bogged down by linear constraints.

concept map example
(Example of concept map)

Now that I have a clear view of how things may go, I can start to figure out the structure. In real life, I’d put these cards on a table and move things around to figure out a timeline. With Cardsmith, I can do this with a click. Switching to the “grid view” gives me a structural view to adapt my already created cards and move them to their appropriate columns and/or rows.

I can now section some of these off to focus on a specific scene if I want. My favorite tactic in the grid view is to move cards into sections or chapters so that I can start seeing the linear progression of the story. Now I have plenty to work with on my blank page (which isn’t so blank anymore) – or skip ahead to a section that I’m really excited to work through, without fear of losing my place in the story.

(Example of grid view)

I can make notes in each card and then move them into different chapters as I work through mapping out the storyline. I can even add more cards to the grid view as needed and switch back to the free form view to reference my mind map, which is still completely intact. This is how you can use “idea mapping” or “brainstorming mapping” to write your next book or blog post. You can also use this process to solve any problem that has too many variables or complexity to immediately understand it. The visualization of the pieces becomes a map to guide you to a solution. Try it out yourself and see what new connections bubble to the surface!