Writing is an essential skill that involves a two-stage process and calls
into play a variety of skills. The first phase is frequently called the prewriting
phase. This includes topic selection, mental preparation of the content (both
conscious and unconscious), researching the topic and organizing the information
The second phase is the actual performance of the writing task. This phase
includes producing the material by hand or mechanically, and using grammatical
rules for organizing, composing, editing and spelling to prepare the text.
There are many books on the market that address how to become a better
writer. Anthony Carnevale sums up the key steps each writer should perform
for all types of business writing as follows:
- define the anticipated readership and purpose for addressing these readers
- determine what form and style of communications are appropriate
- generate and organize ideas
- translate the message into a concise, accurate form
- review, evaluate and revise the written product
Perhaps the most difficult task in any writing project is creating and
organizing the ideas the writer wants to present. Many writers freeze when
confronted by a blank page. Writers are tempted to rewrite and recycle what
others have written.
The solution for producing new and creative ideas on demand lies in using
whole brain techniques to tap into the full spectrum of each writer's personal
knowledge and experience.
Clustering and mind mapping are two similar techniques that help you do
this through the use of graphic display of ideas and their relationships.
Both encourage creating and exploring patterns, making connections and discovering
associations between new and old information, concepts and feelings.
Both clustering and mind maps start with a central idea, concept, topic
or problem which is placed in the center of the page. Then other ideas are
connected to the central topic by drawing lines to show the connections. Further
connections are made until the topic is completely explored.
Use Both Sides of Your Brain, a book by Tony Buzan, introduced mind mapping
as a method for more effective studying, note taking, reading and problem
solving. This method is used in schools and businesses to help with improving
not just writing, but many other aspects of communication and performance
To draw a mind map, start with a word, symbol or image in the center of
the page. Next, draw a broad line from the center in any direction and write
the first main heading along the line. Continue to do the same for the rest
of the main headings.
Next, add sub-headings for each of the main headings by drawing lines from
the appropriate main heading to its sub-headings. Continue for as many layers
of sub-headings as you need.
Create a Mind Map
Now, try your hand at creating a mind map of your own. Draw a mind map
for developing a plan for finding a summer job. Write SUMMER JOB at the center
of the page and draw the branches for the main headings and sub-headings for
what you might need to do to land a summer job. If you have graphic capabilities,
take a look at Alex's Mind Map for this project. Here's his action plan for
getting a job this summer:
- Make a list of jobs I could do
- Make a list of places I might get a job
- Make a list of people to talk to
- Talk to the people on my list and ask for jobs and contacts
- Apply at target companies
- Check out newspapers and bulletin boards for employment ads
Dr. Gabriele Rico developed clustering and introduced it in her book, Writing
the Natural Way. Clustering is a method for tapping both sides of the brain
that is very open ended, non-linear and non-judgmental.
As with mind mapping, the process starts with writing the central issue
in the center of a page and drawing a circle, or bubble, around it. The next
step is to write any associated ideas, feelings, situations, events or anything
else that comes to mind anywhere on the page in a word or short phrase. Each
is circled. The circles are then connected by lines or arrows that make the
At this stage of the clustering exercise, the most important element is
to capture all associations that come without judgment. Include silly, funny,
embarrassing, appropriate and inappropriate words and phrases. Work as quickly
as possible without thinking about how to evaluate or organize what you come
up with. Stop when you feel a shift that tells you you're done.
The next step of clustering is to examine the patterns that emerged and
write about them. This may lead to developing additional clusters or starting
with a new central topic.
Create Your Clusters
Now use clustering to create a story of your own. Place the word WINTER
at the center of your page and draw a circle around it. Relax and think of
whatever associations come up for you. Write these on the page and circle
them. Draw lines and arrows to make connections between the circles as seems
right to you. Continue for about two minutes.
When you're ready, write a paragraph to express what you would want to
tell a good friend about your reaction to this topic. If you have graphic
capabilities, take a look at Nicole's clusters. Here's her story:
I hate winter. It just goes on and on and all I want to do is sleep. But
I can't, because I've got to get my college applications in. Everybody keeps
asking me where I want to go and what I want to do. I have NO IDEA! I wish
they'd quit bugging me. I wish it were summer. At least I'm going skiing at
semester break. That will be a lot of fun and give me a break.
Comparison of Mind Mapping and Clustering
Reflect on how you felt while doing the two exercises. What was different
about how you approached the two activities? Were the outcomes different?
Mind mapping is a more goal-oriented activity than clustering. When you
pick a topic for your mind map, you're already clear on the issue you want
to address. You start to organize what is known and the free associations
they evoke by developing an imposed structure of headings and subheadings
for the mind map.
Clustering evokes the structure of your problem solving through the process
of creating your clusters. As you add circles and make the connections, you
let the process lead you to discovering the underlying patterns. Your heading
and sub-headings are defined and labeled after the clusters are completed.
How do you choose between the two techniques? Since mind mapping is based
on knowing the central topic and having some sense of the main issues involved,
it's a great way to approach outlining a paper or report, taking class notes,
and exploring and organizing any goal-oriented project.
Clustering is an excellent tool for exploring "fuzzy" problems. Clustering
opens up a topic to unexpected and unforeseen solutions. It helps you discover
aspects of a problem or situation that you may not be able to see if you take
a linear, goal-oriented approach.
Both techniques can help you become a more effective writer by using both
sides of your brain.