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Mapping Your Subject and Essay Writing Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 30, 2011

Mapping Your Subject and Essay Writing

Writing is like walking in a deserted street. Out of the dust in the street you make a mud pie. - JOHN LE CARRÉ (1931–) BRITISH SPY NOVELIST

This lesson introduces techniques for organizing your thoughts and beginning the preliminary work of planning your essay.

In the constant search to find ways to make their writing easier, writers use various techniques to help organize their thoughts and plan their work. One of the simplest devices used for planning is called a cluster diagram, or a concept map. (The names are really interchangeable, so use whichever one makes more sense to you.)

Concept maps can be very useful brainstorming tools. If you tend to think in pictures, you may find that jotting down your ideas during the planning stage in map form is a helpful way both to get your ideas down on paper and to visualize the relationships between various ideas. Here is a sample concept map created by a student planning an essay on how sports influence popular culture.

Mapping Your Subject

How to Create A Concept Map

There is no right and wrong way to create a concept map, and it is important that you do not censor yourself when you're drawing the map. Write down your ideas in any order, and draw circles (or ovals or stars) around them to keep them separated from one another. And then sit back and consider them. See if you can see relationships among the ideas, and if you do, connect them with lines or arrows. You may want to cross out some of your ideas that don't contribute to the logic or map of the topic that has emerged during the drawing of the concept map.

Following you'll see a concept map drawn by a student doing the preplanning for an essay about environmental issues in his town. Note that he has been very careful to try to create the map in a very orderly fashion, with ideas radiating in a prioritized manner—big ideas lead down to smaller ideas.

You may not think in such an orderly way and your maps might not look so tidy, which is perfectly all right. What's important is to get lots of ideas down on paper so that you can reorganize your ideas into a different order once you sit down to write the draft of your essay.

Mapping Your Subject

Creating a Mind Map

A similar tool that many writers find useful is called a mind map. To create a mind map, the writer starts from a central idea, drawn usually in a circle in the center of the map, and related ideas are generated in circles radiating out from the central idea. Writers who prefer mind maps to concept maps emphasize that the mind map allows them to think randomly, without having to create big ideas that generate smaller ideas below them. Using a mind map, the writer visualizes all of his ideas as being of equal weight; subsequent planning will then, of course, require that ideas be reorganized into generalizations and specifics. Here is an example of the mind map that the student who planned to write about environmental issues might have created.

Mapping Your Subject

Practice 1: Creating Your Own Mind Map

In Lesson 7, you completed an exercise that asked you to identify an audience, a point of view, and a style for an essay about your school locker. Now, imagine that you are at the next stage of the essay assignment.

On a separate piece of paper, create a mind map for the essay on your school locker. Start with the words school locker in a center circle. Spend just three minutes (use a kitchen timer!) creating ideas for this essay.

Remember, there are no right and wrong answers. This exercise will help you understand how useful mind maps can be in helping you plan any and all kinds of writing assignments.

Practice 2: Creating Your Own Concept Map

Now take another three minutes and draw a concept map for an essay assignment that asks "What Will Your Future Be?"

Remember that concept maps usually visualize ideas in a prioritized pattern or format (general ideas → specific examples), but you are not required to draw your maps in any prescribed way. This exercise will help you know which kind of map feels right to you.

Are you a mind map person or a concept map/cluster diagram person? Think about why you prefer one technique over the other. Perhaps you'll want to take these assignments to school and discuss them with your classmates and teachers. Your teachers might be delighted to have you plan a lesson for the class!

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