Home » Creativity » Clustering and Mindmapping for Writers

Clustering and Mindmapping for Writers

Have you ever struggled to get ideas on paper or create a road map for an article or story? If so, there’s a tool out there that I’ve found quite helpful. In fact, most of my plotting is done this way. So was my business plan.

If you are not yet familiar with clustering, it is a non-linear (e.g. right brain) way of thinking on paper that has been around for decades. The advantage of creating a mind map or cluster is to gently nudge the left brain, with its linear thinking and focus on detail, out of the way to the right brain’s whole picture and abstract thinking can take over. Some people consider it an alternative to a linear outline, and it is, but it is also much more. It has elements of doodling and play, a function of the same part of our mind that writes.

What do people use mindmapping for?

In my personal experience, I’ve found it useful for:

  • Plotting fiction by starting with the premise and branching out into plot events and obstacles.
  • Organizing non-fiction into chapters, sections, and subsections.
  • Dumping my brain onto paper so I can see what’s going on in there (always interesting).
  • Planning projects by branching each step I need to take.
  • Identifying anxiety and worry by branching out whatever comes to mind.
  • Determining my priorities, either in writing or in daily life, by branching all my projects and the steps needed.
  • Pulls out new correlations and connections and fosters poetic language.

So what does a cluster look like?

Here’s an image of the cluster I made for this post. As you can see, there are lines between sections for when I duplicate and sub-branches for details. I use colors after the fact. The actual map is created in pencil or ink first, and then colors are added when I discover the connections.

cluster image


For prose or poetry, start with an idea or two opposing phrases such as old/new, beautiful/tyrant, power/helplessness, creative/destruction, etc.

Why should I make a mindmap?

The right brain thinks differently from the left brain. It speaks in metaphor, images, feelings, concepts. Clustering helps get the right brain to participate and gives the left brain something to see and ruminate over. It is a fantastic way to get the two halves of our brains to work together since the left brain usually does solid work with what the right brain has produced.

What do I do with a cluster or mindmap after I create it?

I put mine in a binder and refer to them as I would an outline.  Some are complete. Others get additional branches as a project moves forward. When I’m working on prose or poetic language, I’ll use it while revising and then file the cluster with the finished piece so I can always remind myself where the spark for the piece came from.

For the more personal clusters, I often end up journaling about their contents and gaining more knowledge of self.

For more information on clustering and using mind maps, I recommend Writing the Natural Way and Writing On Both Sides of the Brain.  The Write Brain Workbook is fun and playful, though not about clustering. I’ve also included a poetic mind map from the first book and another of mine for a plot (don’t judge the plot, it’s for demonstration purposes).

Source: Writing the Natural Way

Source: Writing the Natural Way

Plot cluster

 Have you used clustering as a tool in your writing? If so, how has it helped? If not, would you be willing to try?

Author’s Note: Please forgive the penmanship. My arm is still healing from the accident.

16 thoughts on “Clustering and Mindmapping for Writers

  1. To be honest, Robyn, I feel like the very last image you provided is more than just a mind map. It is a work of art. I would seriously hang this on the wall in my writing space. It is inspiring in its content as well as its form.

    I have actually never tried using this technique in my writing – at least not directly. Recently, I have been experimenting with Scrivener. Using the notecards to add random plot pieces that I would like to include in a story, and then rearranging them is at least a step in the right direction 😉

    I will certainly need to try this in my next project. I will lean on your advice and links to help me along the way, thank you!

    • The plot cluster is free for anyone to use. 🙂 Do try the technique, Dave. It’s my go-to for any planning or even just for getting my thoughts out of my head so I can look at them. If you need any info, just let me know. 🙂

  2. Robyn, I used to cluster years and years ago, after reading “Writing the Natural Way,” and I found it very helpful for all the uses you mention. I tend to have a somewhat hypertext kind of mine anyway, so it felt very natural to me. Most of all, I recall how much I wanted to sit down and just start writing after I’d plunged into a good cluster. But as I’d gotten way from writing over the years, I had actually almost forgotten about this technique. I think I’m going to try it again, either when I first sit down to writing but just before I actually start to draft, or in my notebook during the day to develop ideas for my next writing session, or both.

    • That’s one of the things I like about it, M.A. It always makes me eager to begin writing. I’ve used free tools like Freemind and XMind, but honestly, I get more out of it with paper and pencil. I think it does help to cluster just before a writing session. Very similar to what Rachel Aaron suggests in her book 2k to 10k.

      • I prefer the pen-on-paper method too. For me, part of the energy comes from the feel of the pen in my hand and my skin actually brushing the paper. I’m really looking forward to trying it out again later today. Thanks again for the reminder!

  3. I’ve been AWOL for awhile, Robyn, but I’m so glad to be back! I’ve also been VERY curious about mind mapping, so I’m grateful for your detailed explanation on the process. I’m SO trying this!

  4. Oh my – I might need to start ‘clustering’. There are times when I have too many ideas, but don’t know how to capture them, leading to a below par final product.

    Thank you, Robyn! #HUGS


  5. This is awesome! Thank you. Mapping – in all its forms from GPS to paper maps to the kind of thought process you have so aptly described – is one of my ‘projects’ for 2015. I am a left-brainer who began to see glimmers of mapping through trying to write for my blog because I struggle with getting it all organized into the best … clusters. i started using some of what you describe in January and, eventually plan to write some posts as I work through all the chatter in my head. I will definitely be bookmarking this post and linking to it as I progress with my mapping projects.

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