Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Why You Should Try This Magic Bullet for Writers

I was speaking at a conference several years ago and talking about mindmapping. (If you don't know what mindmapping is, check out one of my previous columns on the subject.)

I spotted one tall, skinny guy in the middle of the very large hotel conference room, smiling and nodding his head vigorously. I could also see a few rather grumpy faces — people who looked either disappointed or disbelieving. A few even looked angry! I moved my eyes back to the smiling guy. I didn't want to be derailed by the folks who were smouldering.

Immediately after my speech, the smiling guy raced to the front of the room. He pumped my hand and thanked me profusely. "I read your column about mindmapping several months ago," he said, "and it totally changed my style of writing. It made it so much easier."

One of the grumpy people also nabbed me. She didn't think mindmapping would work. It seemed too easy, too inconsequential. I took her to the lobby and I remember sitting with her, for about an hour, explaining how the process worked and trying to persuade her to try it.

I have no idea whether she ever did — given her attitude, I suspect not — but I wasn't going to give up easily. Mindmapping is the closet thing to a magic bullet for writing that I've ever found.

I spend a lot of time thinking about mindmapping and I often wonder why it works like a charm for some people and completely flummoxes others. Here is what I suspect:

The people who don't like it value their analytical minds so highly that mindmapping seems like a betrayal. Perhaps their reasoning goes something like this:

...I have a good brain and if I think things through carefully, and methodically, I should be able to come up with a reasonable way of approaching this writing job...

...Stories and articles are by definition organized and linear so the process for their construction should also be organized and linear....

...Mindmapping seems too undisciplined, too haphazard. Surely a logical outline makes a lot more sense...

It's true. We all count on our logical brains for a great many resources. They help us with spelling, grammar and basic arithmetic, with tidying our houses and cooking dinner, with doing the work our bosses want us to accomplish. But they can't do everything.

The thing about mindmapping is that it gives us access to another part of our brains. The deeply creative part. The unconscious part. The inventive part. You can be blown away by the material a mindmap will generate because it is so unexpected. (The story about my speech — at the beginning of this column — came from my own mindmap. I would never have remembered it otherwise!)

If you've been reluctant to use mindmapping, or if you've tried it and it hasn't worked for you, then I urge you to give it another go. Simply turn a piece of paper sideways (landscape fashion) and write your idea or your angle in the centre of the page. Draw a circle around it.

Then write the next idea that springs into your head. Draw a circle around that one too. And keep up with this "brainstorming" until you know what you want to write. That’s it!

Just don't put mindmapping in the same "must do" category as losing weight, discovering exercise or quitting smoking. Instead, view it simply as another tool you can put into your writing basket. Just as sometimes you might go for a run (without becoming "a runner"), or bake a cake (without becoming "a baker") or try a meal without meat (without becoming a vegetarian), you can also produce an occasional mindmap without becoming a mindmapper.

We all need a reset once in awhile. Let mindmapping reboot your writing life.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday January 14th 2014, 5:11 AM
Comment by: Julian Williams - Artist (Narberth West Wales United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I am one of those dyslectic people who as a child and young adult avoided academic subjects because I always found I lost my way and things came out a muddle. Like so many others of my ilk I ended up in the arts; drawing became my passion. These days, especially with the use of word processors, I can gather and order my thoughts, and I find my dyslexia has sort of vanished (I am not sure if this is a common experience, I think my reading and writing are now more fluent than average)

As an artist I work with ideas that flow across the page in all directions from one central idea to the next. The paper is not linear, it is like the visual thesaurus, objects are connected like they are in the VT.

One of my recent projects was to try to reach some sort of visual grammar. I have begun this project with a series of five essays about the nature of nouns on my blog www.drawingandillusion.blogspot.com.

A noun is constructed across the brain, it is not a single thing, it is a bundle of associations. The bundle of things that make up the noun is always changing and they angle from which we approach the noun is never static. I liken nouns t Noah's Ark. When I draw Noah's Ark I can have any number and combination of animals on it's deck, or no animals at all, and it always remains Noah's Ark. Every time I draw Noah's Ark it will have a different election of animals on board, depending of the thread of thought that happened as I was drawing the object.

The same apples to the reader who looks at my picture of Noah's Ark, their minds will travel across a series of ideas as they look at the picture. Pictures are like words, they are like Humpty Dumpty said, whatever I think they mean. For more on this thread of thought I have written this chapter: Humpty Dumpty's Plastic World of Oneness (takes about ten minutes to read: http://drawingandillusion.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/visual-grammar-chapter-4-humpty-dumptys.html)
Tuesday January 14th 2014, 7:52 AM
Comment by: William H. (Severn, MD)
I've tried Mind Mapping: bought the book and bought the software. I like the concept. I'm about to put pen to paper to write a book that I've been researching for years and I hope to use Mind Mapping to organize the >155,000 notes into some coherent, readable text.
Tuesday January 14th 2014, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Marilyn B.
Thanks. I needed that.
Tuesday January 14th 2014, 5:10 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
I love, love, love Mindmapping. I use it for writing and find it helpful for project planning as well. A year or so ago I presented the concept to my co-workers, who all looked at me as though I were from outer space. Sadly for them, they have not embraced it and discovered the fabulocity of Mindmapping.
Tuesday January 14th 2014, 5:32 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I have a son who is dyslexic, Julian, so I understand something of the struggle you must have faced in school. (My son's passion is music and he is currently studying to become an opera singer.) Good for you for becoming an artist. I had a quick peek at your blog and it looks very interesting. Thanks for making the connection between Visual Thesaurus and mindmapping. Yes, the two are very similar. I can't believe I didn't think to mention that!

William, don't expect mindmaps to organize your text (you might want to check out some software like Evernote for that.) Instead, use them to inspire you to write.

Glad to help, Marilyn. Susan, don't lose heart! Your colleagues are the ones who are losing out — you aren't!
Wednesday January 15th 2014, 4:52 AM
Comment by: Julian Williams - Artist (Narberth West Wales United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
The extraordinary thing is how my dyslexia sort of vanished in midlife. I have not heard of it happening to anyone else, but I was very severely put back at school by my difficulties.

Personally I think Dyslexia is used as a catch all phrase for a wide range of difficulties. A car may drive badly because there is dirt in the carburettor or the spark plugs are dirty. The causes are poles apart, the symptoms the same. In my case I think it has to do with poor ability to repeat chains of thought, such as learning the ABC (notice how we have to do it in one direction, and then relearn to do it backwards. and saying every other letter is impossibly difficult). All thought action and sensations are conducted in remembered chains.

Having to struggle in life has mixed blessings, mostly blessings. Yes it is hard to always be bottom in the class. I was the only one in my class of about 100 boys to fail all my o levels, but I got there. Now, when I discover later in life what my contemporaries did with their lives, I find they led much less interesting lives than I have had. I think they lost out by being too bright.

Our very close friends run Opera Box and Swansea Opera. It is not an easy profession, and few make a living, but few would swap their craft for sitting behind a computer. The Greeks said something along the lines of, to die without having followed your passion is never to have lived. My life, every minute, is lived for passion (not money or celebrity, those things happen because of passion). I now find I have a big house, put on operas in my garden and somehow people are interested or in awe of me. None of these things were on my to do list when I was a little boy stuck at the bottom of the class.

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