Yesterday I posted about my resistance to making traditional outlines for my written work. The problem with that is that the human brain (mine, anyway) can only organize and keep track of a limited amount of information before it starts making critical mistakes; which means I need a different method to organize my writing.

Enter Mind Mapping.

Last night I downloaded the freeware version of XMind 2012. This is the first program I’ll be evaluating as an alternative to the standard, bulleted outline in a Word document.

My first impression of XMind after I downloaded it was “Okay, what am I supposed to do now?” I wasn’t even sure how to start, and there didn’t seem to be much in the way of tutorials for how to apply XMind to writing projects (it seems to be geared much more for business meetings, organizational charts, industrial project management, etc.)

I decided to just take a basic story idea I had laying around from months back and plug it into XMind to see where it went. I set up a very simple map, with the story title in the center. I built three sub-categories around this, titled Plot, Setting and Characters. Each of these I broke down further, according to whatever ideas popped into my head.

One cool feature of XMind is that you can add certain emoticons to each topic to visually remind you of something about that topic – I used this to add different faces to my characters according to the personalities I imagined them having. Not a critical tool, but it could be helpful as the plot gets larger, and besides, I got a good laugh out of it. The map I made last night looks like this:

Screen shot 2013-02-03 at 1.56.47 PM

It’s pretty basic, but it’s definitely helpful in brainstorming a topic – it gives a three-dimensional view of a story, and to me, seems much more helpful than an outline. For the linear thinkers out there who can’t survive or write without an outline, XMind creates a working outline on the right margin as you add more detail to the map in the center pane. It’s all seamless, and pretty user friendly. I figured out the basic controls and built this map in about an hour – not bad for someone who’s never done this before.

Another cool feature is ‘drilling down’, which allows you to expand any sub-topic so that it takes primacy on the screen. This allows you to focus directly on one aspect, which would be nice. If you have something mapped on the scale of War and Peace, your map may get a tad large to be viewed effectively on one screen.  Here’s an example:

Screen shot 2013-02-03 at 1.57.31 PM

The controls in XMind are pretty intuitive and simple, and for free, the price certainly can’t be beat. One thing that disappointed me, though was that the brainstorming feature, which allows you to take rapid fire, timed (if you want) notes and plug them quickly into a working map, is not available in the free version.

This was the feature that intrigued me the most from a writer’s perspective, and I would like to give that a try before I pass final judgment. If you want the brainstorming option, you have to drop $99.00 for the Pro package, or get a $79.00 annual subscription to the online version.

I have some more tinkering to do with XMind, but from what I’ve seen so far, it’s very helpful for getting thoughts from your brain onto your document. Everything I hated about writing outlines is mitigated with mind mapping. It’s less linear, and more free flowing. It lends itself to growing and developing over time, yet gives enough structure to avoid being chaotic.

Next in this series, I’ll look at MindMap 7 by Concept Draw. I’ll continue to dig deeper into XMind as well, but I want to alternate between the two to get a better comparison.