This website covers topics on knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

Which to use: Mind mapping or concept mapping

A reader contacted me recently with an interesting question about whether she should use PersonalBrain or MindManager to layout her book.

Please share your opinion regarding best choice of software for writers wanting to organize accumulated electronic folders & files of notes/ideas to construct and work on writing project/novel/etc. I am currently testing Personal Brain. It seems terrific so far. ... [I] can already see how this software could help me build my novel. But, I'm wondering whether my time would be better spent doing all this work in MindManager right away. I get the sense most authors who use mind mapping software prefer MindManager.

My response wasn't so much a recommendation of one or the other but to ask a little about her process and thinking behind the book.  The reason is that these two software packages operate in different "mapping" spaces.  At least in my mind.  Part of my response:

How would you organize things if you only had paper (lots of paper or maybe a giant white board)?  Would the drawing look like something that has a "center" with lots of ideas / storylines shooting out from the center?  Is it more like a "line" that has loops and jumps?  Is it more like an interconnected web of ideas and information?

Of course, I asked these questions because there is a difference in how MindManager (mind maps) and PersonalBrain (concept maps) allow you to represent your thoughts. 

Mind maps, which MindManager helps you create, are centered on a single topic with all sub-topics branching from it.  They are great for organizing thinking around a central idea or problem.  My mind maps end up being notes from a seminar or thoughts about a class I might teach.  Or even notes for a paper I want to write.  I know people have used mind maps to outline book chapters and books.  This works great for writing (or presentations) that are linear and build upon themselves.

Concept maps, which I think of Personal Brain facilitating, let me draw connections between a wide variety of ideas, when there is no "central" idea in the mapping activity.  Concept maps are great when you wish to show the interconnectedness of the ideas being mapped.  A good tool should let me jump from one topic to another in many different directions or along specific types of paths.  Of course, this power makes for difficulty in visualizing a very complex map, as there is no clear "starting point."

After replying along these lines to my reader, she came back with the realization that PersonalBrain probably is the right tool for her, as she needs a concept map:

After 25 years of entering bits and pieces of thoughts and ideas into my pc, I am now able to see relationships between these ideas, be they Character , Conflict, Setting, Dialog, etc.  By linking   together  similarities, I can start to see  actual multi-dimensional characters develop, and see how they relate to the other elements.

Given her initial question to me, I am not surprised that PersonalBrain makes more sense.  Not only does she have ideas about her book, but she's collected a wide variety of tidbits (files) associated with the story and characters.  Having a concept map to tie these all together makes a lot of sense to me.

But her next question is also interesting.  Now that she has all of these things in place, is there a useful tool / process for writing from a concept map?  Is this where a mind map could become more helpful, where she could generate a specific outline that takes components of her concept map and lays them out in a linear fashion?  Or do you just start writing, with the concept map as a reference tool?

Note: The Wikipedia entries for Concept map and Mind map seem to be good enough for general introductions.  The Concept map entry leans more heavily to the semantics that can be built into the map, whereas I tend to stay away from that aspect of the maps.

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