When it comes to writing, most of us compose on-screen. But scrolling through long documents on a computer can be disorienting. It’s difficult to get an accurate impression of the overall structure when we don’t have a clear sense of the whole document.
You can get a broader perspective by printing off your work. Laying the printed pages over a big table gives you an aerial view, allowing you to see the whole piece. Longer documents can be laid out on the floor. You can then wander through your manuscript in your socks, assessing where more or less is needed, or where things need moving round. However, very long projects will occupy too much floor space to view in their entirety.
So, step away from your document for a moment, find a large piece of paper, and try mapping your research. Spider diagrams or mind maps allow your mind to think more widely than if you were making a list. This promotes divergent thinking and can give rise to new and unexpected connections. Here is how to map your research.
1 Start with one central word – or better still, a single image – in the middle of the page (Mind Maps, Tony Buzan (2009). The image should represent the core of your research project or chapter.
2 Branch out from the image in multiple directions, writing one word associated with the image along each branch. Draw a thick line for the first words that lead off from the central image.
3 Then, branch out from each of these words, drawing thinner lines for more remote connections. Branch again and again; the only limit is the number of associations you can make. You don’t have to stick with what you’ve covered so far — the point is to go as wide as you can and see if any new ideas arise. Allocate only one word to each branch — even if you want to write a phrase.
I recently drew a mind map to explore freelance work opportunities. One of my branches was ‘school visits’. I broke this into two words on two branches. As I wrote ‘school’, I suddenly thought about universities and home-schooling groups, too. When I wrote ‘visit’, I realised I could offer virtual visits as well as in-person visits.
4 Finally, draw a circle around the whole map, and ask yourself, ‘What’s beyond the circle?’
Other things to try
- If your mind map is getting too crowded, start a separate mind map with one of the branches.
- Choose your central word or image, then write at least five words branching from it. Write another five from each of these five. Try another five, if you can. How far can you go?
- When you’ve finished your mind map, try connecting random pairs of words and seeing if you can make fresh connections.
- A mind map can be useful for talking through your research with a supervisor or colleague. Pay attention to the questions they ask. By coming to your work with a new perspective, they might see where there are gaps or links you haven’t noticed.
- Mind mapping can be done in groups. It can be useful to do individual mind maps first, collaborate to create a combined map, then separate again and reflect further.
- Mind-mapping software is often available through your university, but also try getting off-screen and drawing your mind maps by hand.
Our imagination is our most powerful tool. Use it to view your research from different perspectives, make novel connections and receive unexpected insights. To see your work in three dimensions, try these creative visualisation exercises.
- Pick up any object within reach and study it. Ask yourself, ‘What elements of this object are characteristic of my research? Then ask, ‘What elements of this object could be the solution or provide what’s needed?’I might pick up my stapler. How is the stapler related to my exploration of freelance work opportunities? Perhaps both operate around a central hinge — a specific purpose or skillset. Should I only choose work related to my primary skills?Keep looking for further connections, even if they seem silly or obscure. You’re looking for elements that trigger insights or reveal things lurking in your unconscious.
- Study an image on your screensaver or wall. Ask yourself the same questions as above.My screensaver shows my brother carrying his wife over boggy ground on their wedding day last summer. What might this image have in common with my search for work? I want to make connections with others. I wish to help other people. I need support! And finally, what elements of the image might reveal the way forwards? Perhaps I need to ask my existing contacts for their advice or to collaborate.
- Ask yourself: if this project were a landscape, what sort of landscape would it be? A formal garden, a wilderness, a cityscape or something else? Then ask yourself, ‘Where are its strengths?’ and ‘Where are its weaknesses?’ And finally, ‘What’s needed now?’ For example, if my current project is a wild garden, I can allow my ideas to grow freely — but is there too much growing here? Maybe I need to create some boundaries.
Getting off-screen and looking at your research in two and three dimensions can help you see the ‘big picture’ more clearly. This in turn can show you where things might be missing or superfluous, or where a document needs restructuring. It can also reveal new connections both within your research project and between your research and the world beyond.
 Buzan, Tony (2009). The Mind Map Book: Unlock your creativity, boost your memory, change your life. London: BBC Active
18 March 2021
Academic writing is a significant challenge for predominantly visual thinkers. Here are some ways to help them to convert an explosion of connected ideas into a linear format.
Working from the bottom up can be a creative way to grow a project. You write notes as you read to create a rough draft as you go.
Exploring their research question in a supportive environment helps early-stage researchers to manage the uncertainty of their topic.