When I worked as a peer writing consultant at my university, students would often bring in drafts of essays that met all of the formal requirements of their assignments but lacked creativity and complexity. While these students were receptive to minor, sentence-level suggestions from me, related to grammar, word choice, or formatting guidelines, I found that they were uninterested in discussing the ideas behind their writing. They were unwilling to delete or rearrange parts of their essays, let alone rethink their arguments. It seemed as if the students had forgotten that their essays were composed fundamentally of ideas, rather than punctuated sentences and properly formatted paragraphs.
A writing process restricted by rules
I believe that this mode of narrow-minded thinking about writing is rooted in how students are taught to write. At an early age, we learn how to spell, punctuate, and arrange words in a sentence. Then, a few years down the road, we learn how to format a five-paragraph essay, with three body paragraphs neatly sandwiched between an introduction and a conclusion. These lessons teach us that formatting is a central component—if not the central component—of good writing.
But this emphasis on formatting clouds the fact that the underlying purpose behind writing is to communicate information: words are nothing more than vessels that we use to transport ideas from one mind to the next. And ideas are not generated through Standard American English. They do not obey the laws of grammar, paragraph structure, punctuation, or spell check. Ideas, in their rawest form, are messy and amorphous.
Mind mapping my way out of a muddled writing process
So how can we reconcile this tension between the messiness of ideas and the rules of writing that are hammered into our heads when we are young? Last year, as I was wrestling to complete an honors thesis for my English major, I discovered a solution to this dilemma.
I had embarked on the thesis-writing process in the spring of my junior year, with nothing guiding me besides an affinity for Shakespeare and a vague interest in studying deviant behavior through a sociological lens. Six months later, after hundreds of hours of research, writing, and workshops, I was not much closer to the expected final product (a 45- to 60-page document made up of roughly equal parts of close reading, secondary source evidence, and original analysis, organized into three chapters with an introduction and a conclusion). Instead, all I had to show for my work were piles of books filled with Post-its and a laptop screen littered with pages of disorganized reading notes, freewrites, and attempted outlines.
It was about this time that I started interviewing for a job with Lucid Software and correspondingly learned about Lucidchart. To acquaint myself with the product, I decided to create a mind map of my thesis ideas. I began diagramming without any premeditation; I simply copied and pasted pieces of my notes into text boxes on the canvas, drawing lines between the boxes whenever it seemed appropriate. As I was still unsure of my paper’s driving argument, my diagram lacked a center and thus expanded in a graceless, lopsided fashion like a many-headed spider sprawling itself across the page.
As I worked, in spite of the haphazard methods that had spawned it, patterns and structures emerged in my thesis map, exposing relationships between ideas that I had previously never imagined. I saw that Shakespeare’s depiction of manliness in "Macbeth" perfectly paralleled Virginia Woolf’s notion of the androgynous mind in "A Room of One’s Own," and this insight helped me develop an argument strand that later became the heart of my first chapter. I also realized that there was space in my argument to discuss my beloved Mary Douglas’ thoughts about ritual and uncleanliness—in fact, her work echoed throughout my argument and would provide a perfect launching point for my conclusion.
By mapping out my thesis ideas, I was able to see that there was an underlying structure—a bigger picture argument—connecting all the work I had been doing for the past eight months. No longer was I fumbling through books and scanning pages of notes. Now, as I zoomed in and out of my Lucidchart diagram on my laptop screen, I could see beyond the individual components of my research process and glimpse why they mattered. Empowered by this new perspective, I began to produce pages, and then chapters, of writing, confident that my work would yield a coherent, powerful final product.
Mind mapping: A tool for all writers
While mind mapping drove my writing process by helping me create structure out of formlessness, it also gave my ideas the space to shift and mutate over time, allowing them to defy and undo the structures that they composed. In its visual form, my argument was not restricted by the rules of writing that stifle so many good ideas.
Without any structure, our best ideas will be hidden in seas of thousands of others, never able to be conveyed through the vessels of words. However, a too-rigid adherence to structure can trap these ideas in undeveloped states, wrenching from them their ability to grow.
I propose that mind mapping be introduced to all students as a tool to support their writing processes because it provides a space for negotiating the tension between form and formlessness—the negotiation that is at the heart of the creative process.