Here’s a trick that can help you write better documents and blog posts: Use a mind mapping software tool to outline your thoughts.
When I write a long document, white paper, or even an important blog post, I pop open Mind42.com. Mind42 is a free, web based, mind-mapper tool that lets me quickly organize my thoughts in a visual chart. I try to follow some general patterns of story telling, and I like to use some of the ideas that Barbera Minto articulated in The Pyramid Principle – for example, that 3 is a great number to use when creating lists.
Now, sometimes I go overboard and I find myself thinking in sevens. But according to one of the most brilliant analysts I’ve ever met, “When you get up to seven, you know that you have not thought about the topic long enough. Five is also too much. Three is the number you want.” I don’t always hit the magic number, but when I do, I find the document is easier to read. When I use the the mind mapper, I can usually do a better job organizing into three. See the sample above. I used this outline for a research paper I wrote on creating a collaborative culture within your organization. As it turns out, the final paper had one list of seven items in it, but I think it was still fine. Sorry Ted.
Many times I’ll start with the mind mapper and enter in the topic and the basic structure of the document — the set up, the context, the recommendations, etc. Then I’ll start adding details to the story. In some cases, this will force me to think about the balance and overall structure. This process also reveals information gaps that I might need to address before I publish.
Sometimes I’ll start writing text, and then I’ll take each paragraph and represent it in the mapper. I’ll also do this when I edit someone else’s document. This way I can point to each message in the document, and ensure that each paragraph is there for a purpose. Then I can point to specific issues of structure and message without getting bogged down with word-smithing.
Mind42 has three other features that I find useful.
- It allows me to export the map into a Word outline.
- It allows me to invite others to collaborate on the map with me, like a visual wiki.
- It auto-saves and allows me to see previous revisions of the diagrams.
What I’d love to see is a tool like this integrated into Google Docs, Buzzword, or Prezi. This would transform my entire writing and presentation process. Whereas I see value in a mind-mapper tool, I think the best implementation for such a tool should be as a feature within an authoring tool, rather than a tool by itself. In a sense, a good mind mapper is like the Smart Art feature in PowerPoint 2007. But until that happens, I’m still very pleased with just having a place to organize my thoughts visually before I write all the words.
Personally I find this tool helpful to me, and that’s why I’m sharing it with you.