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How to Brainstorm and Organize Writing With Workflowy and Mind Maps

Brian's avocation is creative writing. His fiction has appeared in little magazines. He posts essays and articles on HubPages and Medium.

The Web-based program WorkFlowy, on its own and used together with mind maps, is excellent software for brainstorming, outlining, and drafting writing projects, both fiction and nonfiction. I use WorkFlowy to flesh out my mind maps, both freehand and made with Coggle.

The jumble of writing project ideas in my mind before I organize them with WorkFlowy and mind maps

The jumble of writing project ideas in my mind before I organize them with WorkFlowy and mind maps

WorkFlowy for Writing

When, several years ago, I started using the web-based program WorkFlowy, I thought of it as being for making hierarchical lists. That is one of the purposes for which I still use it. On it, I have my shopping lists, my packing for trips lists, my tasks and projects to accomplish lists, my books recommended to me list, my favorite recipes list, my home inventory list, my writing markets lists, and so on. The free version of WorkFlowy was adequate—ample even—for me for that use.

I soon discovered that WorkFlowy is also useful for brainstorming ideas and for outlining and drafting plans and prose works. For the latter—emails, letters, stories, essays, articles—what in hierarchical lists are tabbed levels of categories and items are instead titles/subjects, headings, and paragraphs.

I often use WorkFlowy to write a first draft. It helps me to organize my thoughts at the same time it encourages my ideas to flow.

WorkFlowy Free vs. Pro

At first, I used the free version of WorkFlowy. It has the same functions as the subscribe by the month or year version but with a limited number of new entries per month and with fewer customizing options. When I found that the free edition of WorkFlowy was too limiting for my extensive use, I signed up for the Pro edition. It costs me $49 per year, which comes to $4.08 per month. (If I subscribed by the month, the charge would be $4 99 per month.)

When I used WorkFlowy just for lists, the free version was ample for my needs. When I began to also use WorkFlowy as a step in my process of creative writing, the free version was soon too limiting for me.

To give an example of one of my writing projects on WorkFlowy, I'm revising a novel that I originally wrote in the 1990s. I have two copies of the whole novel on WorkFlowy—the final draft of the original edition and a copy I'm in the process of revising. Previously, the beginning of the actual story didn't begin until three-quarters of the way into the novel. Much of what came before that was boringly detailed backstory. Also, I've realized that the story I previously told as a short novel—at about 51,000 words, shorter than the minimum length acceptable by most publishers—would be better told as a novella or even a short story. With WorkFlowy, I can easily collapse, expand, rearrange, revise, and delete paragraphs, scenes, scene sequences, and chapters.

What I write in WorkFlowy is automatically and frequently saved and is backed-up to my DropBox account—an option in Setup.

I advise starting with the free version of WorkFlowy and using it for as long as you don't need the paid subscription version to meet your needs.

Brian Leekley's WorkFlowy collapsed to the highest level.

Brian Leekley's WorkFlowy collapsed to the highest level.

Screenshot showing WorkFlowy-Writing-Works in Progress-HubPages-Hubs partially expanded

Screenshot showing WorkFlowy-Writing-Works in Progress-HubPages-Hubs partially expanded

Users can view WorkFlowy content as bullet points in a tabbed hierarchy, as shown in the screenshots above, or in Board view, as shown in the next screenshot. In it, I have zoomed in on Home-Writing-Writing Works in Progress-Medium-Medium Articles and Essays in Progress. As of when I took the screenshot, I had not posted any of those essays to Medium.

So far, I haven't made use of Board view. My usual practice is to draft a HubPages or Medium article in WorkFlowy Bullet view, which helps me to brainstorm and sort ideas. Then I Export and Paste the draft into a word processing program, such as Apache Open Office Writer, for more editing, and I delete it from WorkFlowy. Then I post it to HubPages or Medium.

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WorkFlowing in board view showing essays on which I was working

WorkFlowing in board view showing essays on which I was working

A handmade mind map on scrap paper

A handmade mind map on scrap paper

Mind Mapping

A few years ago, I chanced to see somewhere a mention of the mind mapping method of taking notes invented by Tony Buzan. I Googled "mind mapping," read about it, watched YouTube videos about it, did some interactive tutorials, and began mind mapping.

Right away, I had astounding results. I used a ballpoint pen and scratch paper to take notes in the mind-mapping way for myself at a church committee meeting. Later, guided by that mind map, I wrote a summary of the meeting, which I shared by email. Committee members expressed amazement at the thoroughness and accuracy of my summary. Making the mind map during the meeting, while I was actively participating, was quick and easy.

I took mind-mapping notes during an hour-long telephone conversation with my brother in California. Afterward, guided by the mind map, I wrote a summary of the conversation. I was happy to have thus captured and retained the family news and anecdotes that otherwise would have faded within hours, even minutes, from my memory.

That was just the beginning of my uses of mind mapping.

Mind Mapping for Writing

Besides mind mapping notes about a meeting, conversation, lecture, or book, I use mind mapping to brainstorm plans, meeting agendas, and my stories, essays, and articles.

Mind mapping helps structure ideas for an essay or article. Ideas pertaining to an idea come readily to mind during the process.

I use mind mapping in fiction writing to brainstorm such questions as who are the characters, what are their names, what are their enneagram of personality types, what does each character want to accomplish, what are the locations of the scenes, and so on.

For quick, simple, one-time-use mind maps, I use a pencil or ballpoint pen and scratch paper—or any paper I can get free or cheap. Depending on the complexity and length of what I'm preparing to write, I mind map on shirt-pocket-size paper, notepad paper, letter-size paper, large sheets of newsprint or drawing paper, or a big dry-erase whiteboard.

Whenever I have the tools and time, especially if I am working on an essay, article, or short story, I mind map with colored pens or use a mind-mapping computer program.

Nothing beats mind mapping by hand. You can do that just about anywhere. Ideas seem to flow one from another and to interconnect most readily during by-hand mind mapping. Using software to mind map is almost as effective and has advantages, such as better legibility and convenient storage.

"The Mind Map taps in to your innate creativity that is always there…"

— Aida Gabit Kyzy in Modern Mind Mapping for Smarter Thinking

Mind-Mapping Software Programs

Some mind mapping software programs, such as iMindMap Ultimate (the one endorsed by Tony Buzan) or Mindjet, cost hundreds of dollars. Others are less expensive. Some mind mapping programs cost a monthly fee, ranging from under $5 to over $30. Others are free.

You can find a List of concept- and mind-mapping software on Wikipedia. Included are open-source, freeware, and proprietary programs.

Of the many free (open-source or freeware) mind-mapping programs, the one I like best so far is Coggle. It is a Web-based freeware program with a set-up that associates it with one's Google or Apple account for login. A Coggle mind map can be exported as a PDF image, a PNG image, a TXT plain text outline, or an MM file.

I have Coggle on my desktop computer, my laptop computer, and my Android cell phone. Since the program is web-based, each accesses the same saved mind maps.

FreeMind and XMind are free mind-mapping programs that I also like, though not nearly as much as Coggle. Each is open source. XMind also has Plus and Pro editions that cost money.

A Coggle mind map by Brian Leekley

A Coggle mind map by Brian Leekley

I recommend WorkFlowy and mind mapping—freehand or with an app such as Coggle—as handy tools for brainstorming and organizing the ideas and elements used in drafting an article, essay, or story. Coggle and WorkFlowy work well together. Whether the free version of WorkFlowy is sufficient depends on the individual situation. At less than $5 per month for extensive daily use, the paid subscription version seems to me inexpensive and worth it—and my income is low. I'm still using the free version of Coggle. Both programs are Web-based so that I can use them from my home computer, laptop computer, or smart cell phone.

I'm looking forward to learning even more ways to use them for daily living lists, prioritizing and keeping track of problems needing attention, and creating writing project drafts.

© 2015 Brian Leekley


Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on February 27, 2020:

Thanks, Alyssa. I'm still learning how to mind-map. Until recently, I was trying to put condensed phrases on the branches. Example: Thanks . A~ . / . learning . how . / . mind-map. I just recently started getting the hang of having a word, symbol, crude drawing, or icon stand for, in my mind, a whole situation or concept. Like, "thanks" might be represented by an emoji or a stick drawing of a thumbs up gesture, learning by a school icon or by a crude drawing of a brain with arrows pointing at it, and so on. My mindmap of my priorities for today uses c.w. for creative writing, SWR for Silverdale Writers Roundtable, ems for emails to write, etc. The online videos by Tony Buzan explain how to mind-map. It's taken me years to get past my habit of thinking only in phrases, sentences, and paragraphs.

Alyssa from Ohio on February 16, 2020:

What a great collection of ideas! I love the mind-mapping method you described. I'm going to give it a try and see how it works for me. Right now, I have a notebook and a stack of index cards on my counter where I jot down everything -- to-do lists, ideas, etc. Thank you for the tips!

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on November 14, 2019:

Thanks for commenting, Cygnet. I use WorkFlowy daily for many things—simple lists; notes to self; get done priorities; first drafts of anything from fiction to essays to opinion pieces to emails to social media posts; databases such as recipes, and more.

I'm the only person I know who sometimes freewrites by hand in a spiral.

Cygnet Brown from Springfield, Missouri on November 04, 2019:

I have done the mindmapping since the mid-80s and I am not sure how well the spiral writing will benefit me, but WorkFlowy looks interesting and I plan to check it out.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on October 31, 2019:

I hope they work well for you, Mark.

Mark Tulin from Palm Springs, California on October 23, 2019:

Some good organizing ideas I will likely try. Thanks, Brian.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on May 23, 2019:

Thanks for your comments, Kate.

To share a hub on Twitter, I think simply copy its URL address and paste that into a tweet saying what and why you are sharing. My understanding is that Twitter will automatically convert the URL into a short form.

A Google search finds numerous free and low-priced mind map software programs now available.

Kate MacAlpine from Anywhere, USA on May 18, 2019:

This is a very informative and comprehensive article. (I wish there was a Twitter social share on HubPages.) Years ago when I was tutoring college students there was a great piece of software for mind-mapping with cool circles, squares, etc. Maybe someone here will remember the name. I don't think it was part of the old "Writers' Resources" software, but it might have been. This is an article to bookmark for sure! Thanks for the content!

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on April 24, 2018:

I'm glad you found this hub helpful, Marlene.

I agree that it is hard to get used to the one word per branch advice. I think for Buzan each word represents a whole block of thought, standing for a phrase, a sentence, or even a paragraph. I'm not used to thinking that way.

Marlene Bertrand from USA on April 21, 2018:

Oh, wow! This is quite interesting. With the exception of the one word per branch concept, I have been mind mapping all my life and did not even know it. I learned some additional and very helpful information here. Thank you.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on February 14, 2018:

Actually, Nikki, three techniques. I don't know anyone else who writes some first drafts in a spiral. I discovered that my thoughts flow better when I'm handwriting a nonstop line. I'm still learning how to mind map the Tony Buzan way. Mind mapping is useful in many circumstances, especially brainstorming and note-taking. I use WorkFlowy daily—for making and updating various lists; for keeping track of notes to myself; for piecing together a first draft, and more. I hope you find one or more of the three writing tools helpful.

Nikki Khan from London on February 14, 2018:

Wow,,, what an interesting way to create an effective writing.

Learnt a lot to shape me writing into a good one and meaningful one.

This technique is so different,,I’ll definitely try this one in my coming writings.

Thanks for sharing your ideas with us.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on December 15, 2016:

Thanks, DDE.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 25, 2016:

An interesting way to create writing. I learned a different style.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on December 24, 2015:

Thanks for your comment, Miranda.

I don't know why my ideas flow more readily when I write in longhand in a spiral.

I hope you find WorkFlowy (at workflowyDOTcom) as handy as I do.

I continue, little by little, to get better at mind-mapping.

Miranda Stork from England on December 02, 2015:

Really well-written article, and some great ideas here. I haven't used the mind-mapping method for years, since I was at school, but I think I might brush it off again - it really does work well. I don't know if I would try the spiral writing, but I find the thoughts behind it fascinating, so I might just have to give that a go too! And the WorkFlowy method sounds great for if I'm doing my essays; it's very similar to when I do an essay plan. Thanks for a great hub!

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on October 17, 2015:

Thanks, Frank. I hope you find these ideas helpful. I do.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on October 12, 2015:

Thanks for commenting, RTalloni. Mind-mapping has lots of uses. I hope you like it when you try it.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on October 12, 2015:

first of all I love the idea, and it kept me interested with its swift pacing and dynamic schematics.. yeah awesome :)

RTalloni on October 08, 2015:

Thanks for a neat read that has inspired me to learn more about mind-mapping with a view for practicing it in mind.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on August 30, 2015:

Thank you for commenting, paolaenergya. I don't know why writing by hand in a spiral makes my ideas flow more readily from mind to paper, but it does. Maybe it's an instance of Tony Buzan's finding that the brain is bored by straight lines and attracted by curved lines?

Paola Bassanese from Ireland on August 25, 2015:

Just read your article Brian, thank you for sharing all these tips! I am particularly fascinated by spiral writing.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on August 07, 2015:

I agree, Ann.

Ann Carr from SW England on August 07, 2015:

I've done a few hubs referring to dyslexia and mentioned mind-mapping as part of the techniques which help. Spiral writing was just something to play with, another possibility to experiment with. Different techniques suit different people, be they dyslexic or not, so it's all a matter of what fits, what works and what's preferred. As long as the choices are there, that's the important thing, along with guidance as to how to use them.


Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on August 07, 2015:

You're welcome, Nadine.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on August 07, 2015:

Thanks, Dzy. If you find mind-mapping to be at least occasionally a handy habit, I hope you will write about your experience.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on August 07, 2015:

I hope that you will, Eric, and that you will be pleased.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on August 07, 2015:

Hope you like them, Ashley. Thanks for commenting.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on August 07, 2015:

Thank you for commenting, Kathy.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on August 07, 2015:

Bill, right! Give all three—mind-mapping, using WorkFlowy, and freewriting in a spiral—a try.

A question for the Monday mailbag: What were your judgments of the results?

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on August 07, 2015:

Your comment did come through, Ann. Thank you for it. I approved it and replied to it a little more than a day after you posted it.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on August 07, 2015:

Thanks, Ruby Jean.

If, when a word comes to mind, you jot it in the middle of the page and then circle it and draw a branching line from the circle and on it write a word that comes to mind because you associate it with the first word, that is the beginning of a mind map.If another association pops into your mind, draw another branch and jot that word. And so on. When you later look at your jot pad, you will see not just a word but rather several words that are in some ways associated. Explore the possibilities.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on August 07, 2015:

Thanks, Ann, for your nice comment and the share.

Have you considered telling in a hub about your personal and professional experiences with mind-mapping—or have you done that already?

I agree that mind-mapping by hand is best.

I'm fascinated that you have used spiral writing. Have you done so only as a teacher or also personally?

Dragon Naturally Speaking 13 is the best yet. I hope and expect to review it soon.

Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on August 07, 2015:

Interesting that you used it for writing ideas. I have the book as well. Purchased it many years ago but never used it. I have no many ideas there is just not enough time in a day to implement them all, so I will find that book again. Thanks!

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on August 06, 2015:

Interesting. I first heard of mind-mapping back in the late 1980s-early 90s when a friend of mine formed her own reading and comprehension workshops for high school students. She'd lost her job in the local school district, thanks to budget cuts and 'downsizing,' so she went independent and formed her own company.

I like the idea, but I've rarely used it, largely because I forget about it, and haven't used it enough to remember to do it. Ironic, I know.

After reading your article, though, I believe I'll give it another shot, and check out the tutorials.

The thing I always hated about having to take notes in school, was the fact that while I was concentrating on writing down what had just been said, before I forgot, I was then missing what was currently being said as I wrote.

Voted up, useful and interesting. Bookmarked for future reference as well.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 06, 2015:

Thank you for writing this for us. I learned a whole lot and hope to incorporate that learning into my life.

Ashley McRay from New Braunfels on August 06, 2015:

This is new and interesting information for me. I have never heard of these writing techniques. I'm excited to try them out! Excellent hub.

Kathy Henderson from Pa on August 06, 2015:

This is an interesting hub and new information to me, thank you for sharing. Have a blessed day!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 06, 2015:

It's always interesting to learn new techniques, Brian, so I thank you for this great explanation and for sharing examples with us. I've never done this...maybe I'll give it a try this weekend. What can it hurt, right? :)

Ann Carr from SW England on August 06, 2015:

I thought I'd left a comment on here! Maybe it hasn't come through yet. Will come back a little later.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on August 06, 2015:

I find your article different and interesting. I'm a person who is a jotter, by that I mean when a word comes to mind I jot it down and usually forget it until I look at my ' jot ' pad then I may get an idea for a story. Mind mapping is certainly a different approach. Thank you for sharing.

Brian Leekley (author) from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on August 06, 2015:

Thanks for commenting, bravewarior. I have a "Writing Ideas" hanging file, too.

One of the things I like about mind mapping is that I can do it with pen and scratch paper anywhere. It is a way of jotting notes to myself, whether about writing ideas, interesting things to do ideas, what to learn from the book I am reading, or whatever. Buzan's talks and tutorials explain why it is the best way to write notes. The more I've played around with the method, the more I've liked it.

WorkFlowy is to me useful for much more than list making and outlining. I work in it much as in a word processing program, with the advantage that I can in a jiffy collapse or expand, make disappear or reappear, or reposition whole paragraphs, segments, scenes, and chapters. It is quite handy in the early stages of developing a vague idea for an article or story.

I am the only person of whom I know so far who writes in spirals.

Ann Carr from SW England on August 06, 2015:

This is a great hub because it points out wonderful alternative ways of creating.

I've used mind-maps for many years with my dyslexic students, especially the more visual learners amongst them. It's useful for just about everybody, dyslexic or not, and aids focus and lateral thinking.

I also prefer to do them by hand, as the kinaesthetic and 'touch' part of learning is important too; a multi-sensory approach works wonders.

Spiral writing is another way of doing just that. I've also used Dragon Naturally Speaking though not for a while as I'm retired from teaching. I believe it's come on in leaps and bounds over the last 10 years.

Great hub, well-explained. Up ++ and shared.


Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 06, 2015:

Interesting tools, Brian. These would be great for those who outline their work. I don't, but many agents, publishers, editors request outlines when pitching a story or article.

I'm old school as far as keeping track of my story, article or book ideas. I jot them down and put them in a file folder called "Writing Ideas". I suppose I could utilize some of the tools you mention here, but reaching for a physical folder comes naturally for me and I don't have to have my computer up in order to access it.

You article is very informative. I wasn't aware of any of these applications. Thank you for sharing.

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