Integrating visual outlining into my writing process

I’ve been working on a habit of drawing daily. It turns out to be a useful tool for exploring thoughts. I start with a question or an idea, and draw or write in the process of thinking about it. Since my blog posts usually deal with one thought at a time too, the drawings become good starting points for blog posts: I draw, and then I flesh it out with words. (Like this post!)


Before I started drawing my thoughts, I worked with a huge text-based outline of things I wanted to write. The outline was really handy for sketching out an idea or jotting down my thoughts before I got distracted by research or other things. It was also great for tweaking the logical flow of a blog post or how it fit into a possible blog post series before I actually sat down to write paragraphs.

Both drawings and text outlines have their advantages. How can I better integrate drawing into the process of writing or blogging?

When: Drawing works well for me as a low-energy activity late at night, when I’ve already put my computer away or I don’t want to be tempted into staying up late staring at a screen. My hands get tired if I draw for a long time, though. Writing works well for me during the day, because I can write faster and I can reorganize things quickly. That suggests that I should draw as a way of preparing my thoughts in the evening, sleep on it, and then flesh ideas out by writing during the day.

Level of detail: Text-based outlines are good for my overall outline because I can work with lots of unrelated topics. Drawing is good for high-level maps of a single topic (like this one for learning) because I can keep the drawing in front of me as I explore. Drawing is also good at the level of a single thought or question, but I can’t draw to the same level of detail that I can capture in a text outline. If I’m planning a large topic, then, I might:

  • use text for the overall outline,
  • draw a map of topics to explore,
  • copy the map into my outline and drill down until I get to the level of individual questions or ideas,
  • draw the idea as a way to explore it,
  • then outline further details, especially if I’m planning a series of posts

I’m also curious about using more flexible mindmappers like Freeplane to do some of my mapping on the computer. I prefer Org Mode text outlines over straightforward mindmaps like Freemind because they have essentially the same structure but I’m more comfortable with text manipulation in Org, but Freeplane’s floating nodes might be interesting to play with.

I wonder who else out there uses sketchnotes, mindmaps, or drawings as part of their writing process. Do you use them, or have you come across other writers who do? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

  • Jason John Wells

    I have not been using Freeplane for awhile but in retrospect, I wish I
    had been putting more details into the node notes to make the very large
    maps more compact. Another thing to think of is having template nodes
    to paste in. I often used a ‘ref’ node that has sub-nodes for ‘About’,
    ‘Features’, Benefits’, Help!’, ‘Questions’.

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on working Freeplane Attributes and the
    possibility of mind mapping with a touch interface.

    Have you looked at Docear? It’s a Freeplane derivative made for searching,
    organizing and creating academic literature

    • sachac

      Hmm… Because I’ve been using Freeplane as an index to the sketchnotes that have more details, my nodes are pretty compact. I’ll be sure to use details when I get to the stage of adding more information, though. =) Haven’t needed attributes yet either.

      Touch/pen is an interesting way to browse and reorganize the map, and I’ll see if I can make better use of it. Feels more natural than using the mouse. If I’m in tablet mode, I’ll probably want to set up an external keyboard so that I can add new nodes as needed…

      Docear looks great for managing PDFs, and that recommender feature would’ve been awesome during my grad studies. =) I’m still kinda split on what I want to associate my nodes with, though. Evernote is handy for being able to search and update my images, but the categorization workflow is so much faster with attachments or file hyperlinks… Hmm, maybe I can experiment with converting a few to PDFs and annotating them – that would handle the virtual sticky-notes use case I’ve been thinking about based on How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think (Lion Kimbro). Thanks!

  • jsamlarose

    I’ve been mindmapping for a while now, but the amount I do with mindmaps has really ramped up over the past 6 months or so. Much of my first tier writing and thought capture is done on an iPad, and I’ve really come to appreciate the facility of organising thoughts on a touchscreen.

    Nothing revolutionary about my personal process for mapping prose pieces— random/instant capture of initial ideas, sort into some kind of logical (or otherwise engaging) order, export to a text editor, refine. Whereas, in the past, I may have mapped the skeleton of a piece of writing, I’ve found myself staying in the map to do more development of an idea and the way it’s structured before pushing the text to an editor. That said, it’s relatively painless to switch between map and text document now, and I can think of at least a couple of pieces I’ve pulled back from text editor stage to unpick and reorganise in map form…

    • sachac

      And it’s so much easier to move things around when you haven’t fleshed out the paragraphs yet! =)

  • braincutlery

    Nice post! This is pretty much how I started integrating sketch noting into my blog posts, until I got to a point where I started writing more “off the cuff” without any kind of mind map or sketchnote.

    I still sketchnote a lot, but not so much in my blog posts. I will re-think whether there are opportunities to incorporate a sketchnote or two in further posts though!

    • Sacha Chua

      That’s why I found your blog post about your sketchnote journey interesting, since I went the other way around. =) I’m used to writing off the cuff. I’ve been teaching myself to outline before writing, and now I’m integrating more drawings into the way I share. Perhaps you’ll come full circle!