Mindmapping Essays

Essay writing is a distinct skill that needs to be developed alongside research and academic writing. Often conflated with writing a Business Report by students outside of the social sciences, essays have unique structures and aims that need to be considered at the planning stage rather than just being a simple "format" that can be adapted after writing is complete.

Mindmapping is an extremely useful tool that can help sort and organise information in our heads to allow for a clear, well-structured essay that achieves its objectives. While not a necessary tool by any means, it is worth experimenting with to see if it help you as an individual. Both paid and free mindmapping software is available for almost every desktop and mobile operating system but do not underestimate the utility of the simple pen-and-paper method either.

Photo credit: Orin Zebest

The aim of an essay should carefully constructed and very clear. Unlike a Business Report, which may be written simply to gather together information, an essay is a continuous piece of writing that has a clear purpose beyond just presenting research or information.

The essay title or question need to encapsulate this purpose with the introduction serving to clarify and expand the objectives, e.g. you may be writing an essay to answer a set question or investigate a certain issue. The parameters of the purpose need to be explicitly laid out at the very beginning of the research and writing process so that all material included serves to achieve the purpose.

A mindmap can help clarify both the question itself and your initial thoughts before you begin any reading or writing. Clarifying even seemingly simple questions can help, highlighting key words and terms to establish context, using word associations to see links with relevant issues and grouping together related points to see the beginnings of a structure.

The example images below (from RMIT University) shows a two-stage process for this, although we will be adding a third stage at the end. The first stage is the initial brainstorming exercise, where you may wish to simple list all ideas, points and issues that come to mind when looking at the question. In this case, the example question of "Do teams need leaders?" prompts a range of different thoughts, some are further questions, some individual points and other just relevant ideas. At this stage, just getting everything down on paper is key.

Image Credit: RMIT University

Once this is done however, you will want to apply some organisation to the ideas you've collected in order to organise your own thoughts on the question. A mindmap will now become very useful. Starting with a central point, in this case the essay question or title, you can start branching off to smaller points with everything clustered thematically. 

In the example below, the essay question of "Do teams needs leaders?" leads to the sub-point of "Types of leaders" which then leads to three different types, authoritarian, participatory and laissez-faire, grouping together and developing these categorisations from the initial idea in the brainstorming section.

Image Credit: RMIT University

The aim of clustering points together in this manner is two-fold. Firstly, it can help organise your own thoughts and allow you to see connections between specific issues or ideas, thus helping to strengthen the eventual structure of your essay. Secondly, it can also help to identify weak areas or underdeveloped themes that you might otherwise overlook or miss, it can also help push your thinking further on a particular points and therefore help develop the content, as well as the organisation, of your essay.

The third stage of mindmapping an essay can be the actual structure itself, as seen below.

Image Credit: wikiHow

Using a mindmap to plan the structure of an essay can have several advantages over the traditional method of listing points sequentially or by bullet-points. The first is the ability to see connections between various points in your structure, and thus helping rearranging efforts to make a logical progression to your conclusion. Secondly, you will be able to more easily implement a "footprints" approach to paragraph structure by mapping out a single point (or group of closely related points) and backing evidence or quotations for that point. Thirdly, you can organically build up the structure of your essay as you are conducting research or reading and quickly make adjustments to incorporate your findings into your structure itself.

A final point to note is that mindmapping tools should be adapted to your own preferences and workflow, some find them extremely helpful in every stage of planning and writing academic work and others prefer to use a mindmap only for particular parts of the process. Experimentation with mindmaps is likely to yield better results than attempted to force yourself to adapt wholesale to the tool rather than intelligently adapting the tool to your preferred method of working.


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