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Using Graphical Outlines

by Ron Kurtus (updated 25 June 2023)

Typically, when creating written material, people do it in a very linear manner, with one sentence after another. The problem is that the creative part of the mind does not necessarily come up with ideas linearly.

Often during the creative process, the mind jumps around from one point to another. A good method to put ideas down the way the mind works and to enhance the creative process is by using graphical outline diagrams.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.

Graphical outline diagrams

We normally write in a linear progression with one word or thought after another. Often writers will use a linear outliner—such as the one in MS Word—to help organize their thoughts. But studies have shown that people don't always think in such a manner. Usually creative thoughts pop into our minds sporadically, jumping from topic to topic.

Thus, a better method than a linear outline is to use 2-dimensional graphical outlines, which allow you to put down your thoughts in the form of free-association diagrams. This graphical outline method is also called Mind Mapping® or idea clustering.

(The Mind Mapping expression is a registered trademark of Buzan Centres.)


The following figure is an example of a graphical outline or diagram for this lesson.

Graphical Outline of this lesson

Graphical Outline of this lesson

You can put down your ideas in a random fashion without worrying about how they fit together. This frees you from worrying about processing the thoughts into some order. It is somewhat related to the group methods of brainstorming.

After these ideas are established, we then process these creative thoughts and arrange them into a linear progression of ideas.


Also, we often associate something we hear or see with a thought, resulting in an idea. Writing down one idea may stimulate another unrelated idea. When this happens, it can be awkward or slow you down to put the thought in the correct position in a linear document.


Advantages of graphical outlining include:

It even seems that "writer's block" is minimized through using this technique

If you are to give a speech, a graphical diagram is a good way to lay out the key points of your talk, if you are going to use notes to remind you of topics. I once demonstrated the use of this technique in a Toastmasters Club, where I wrote out a graphical outline of a speech in a few minutes and then gave that speech to the group directly from the diagram.

Diagramming your ideas

You can diagram your ideas with a pencil and paper, or you can use one of the graphical outlining software applications on the market. There are several formats you can use, according to your own preferences.

Bubble format

One format used to map ideas is to write down your main idea or topic and put a bubble or circle around it. Then put down other ideas or thoughts on the subject—preferably in as few words as possible—anywhere around the topic. Circle the ideas and draw a line to the main topic or to some other idea, if there seems to be a connection. You can also make short comments on the lines.

Continue putting ideas in bubbles on your paper until you feel you have enough. You can put ideas in bubbles or ovals as they come into your mind. Sub-ideas can be added to your bubbles, adding to the diagram in any order as the ideas pop up. Usually your ideas come in an order, but sub-ideas may arise or you may jump to another area of your diagram, as ideas come into your mind.

The central theme, problem or idea is designated with the red cloud in the figure above. All ideas branch off from that theme. The yellow bubbles represent the first level thoughts or ideas. The blue bubbles represent the second level ideas.

Other formats possible

They are other possible formats for graphical outlining diagrams. Another common one is to write your comments and ideas on the lines instead of the bubbles. Try different methods and use what suits you the best.

You can also use different colored pens to emphasize, to keep track of different levels or to have fun with the process. Experimentation is key to finding out what works best for you.

Later, improve diagram

After you have completed your diagram, you can go back later and add points to various items, as you think of things. In other words, you can refine your thoughts, perhaps even crossing out ideas that aren't so good.

Finally, you can change the graphical outline into a standard outline and organize it some more. Or you can simple write out your thoughts as a finished document.

Software tools

Besides making a graphical outline with a pencil and paper, you can also use one of the various software applications, such as MindGenius, Inspiration or MindMapper.

Another interesting software program is IdeaFisher. It is not an idea-clustering application but an idea-stimulation program that uses word cues to help give you new ideas. It could be used in tandem with graphical outlining diagrams.


The advantage of using software for graphical outlining is that you can write documents for various points in your diagram, and you can print out your material as well as your diagrams. For example, the figure on this page was done with Inspiration.


The disadvantage is that using the software can be cumbersome and may stifle the creative process. In most cases, I prefer to start with a pencil and paper to quickly scribble out my mind map. I then sometimes use a software program to get a cleaner picture of the diagram and to set up an outline of my document.

Again, it depends on your own preferences and the ways you work the best.


Graphical outlining is a great method to stimulate your creative juices and to organize your thoughts. You can use a pencil and paper to sketch out your free-association diagrams, or you can use a software application to guide you through the process.

Be creative in ways to increase your creativity

Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials


Eight Steps to Mindmapping

Outlining Enhances Creativity and Productivity

Writing Resources


Software used for graphical outlining:

MindGenius - Business mind-mapping software

Inspiration - A graphical outliner or mind-mapping application aimed at younger students

Mindmapper - Another good mind-mapping tool.


The following books may be purchased from

Mapping Inner Space : Learning and Teaching Mind Mapping by Nancy Marguilis, Zepher Press, 1991 ($32.00)
Provides exercises for learning mind mapping or graphical outlining.

Mindmapping : Your Personal Guide to Exploring Creativity and Problem-Solving by Joyce Wycoff, Berkley Pub. Group, 1991 ($12.95)
Practical guide to putting creative powers to work.

Use Both Sides of Your Brain by Tony Buzan, E.P. Dutton Publisher, 1991 ($12.36).
Good book on creative techniques.

The Mind Map Book by Tony Buzan, Plume Pub., 1996 ($18.36).
Shows how to use Buzan's version of the graphical outlining technique.

Students and researchers

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