Brain Dump, Mind Map, Outline: A Simple Process for Turning Ideas into Articles

One of writing’s biggest set of obstacles is taking an idea, expanding on it, and turning it into an article, essay, book, what-have-you that stays on topic and expresses your thoughts clearly, concisely, and with style. I think, mostly, that’s because a lot of folks don’t have a process for capturing, expanding, and organizing their ideas before they actually sit down to compose a piece. They just plop down at the ol’ keyboard and let ‘er rip. And after a few hundred words they look up, read, and ask themselves just what in Sam’s blue blazes they’re talking about!

Now, don’t get me wrong. Letting it rip for a first draft is a great way to get a piece of writing started. But it’s best to let it rip after gathering your thoughts, organizing them, and outlining them in a flow that makes sense and leads the reader seamlessly through the points that you want to make. Without that clarity and flow you often end up with a mishmash of ideas that circle around each other with no definitive path forward.

That just won’t work.

So, with this lesson I’m outlining a simple, three-part process for taking a thought, expanding on it, organizing it, and turning it into an article. Truthfully, this process isn’t just applicable for writing articles–that’s just the framework I’m choosing. You could apply these three steps to expand an idea into just about any creative endeavor–an article, a book, a video. Hell, you could use it to get a business off of the ground.

The examples in this lesson come from a real article that I outlined and wrote for Eric Cressey’s website. I harvested the idea from a question, and subsequent discussion, on the Strength Faction Open Forum about clients and helping them set goals that they honestly believe they can achieve.

Ok, let’ get started with the brain dump.


The Brain Dump

One idea is really just the tip of an iceberg’s worth of ideas. Your initial thought is bobbing up and down at the surface of the water while all of the thoughts and expressions that help you to deliver it are in the depths, waiting for you call them up. And when you call them up, you dump them out on to paper. Enter the brain dump.

Starting with that initial thought in your head, you just start dumping out everything you can in support of, or in relation to, that thought. It’s ok to have some resources around you–books, other articles, etc.–to spark some thoughts. It’s also ok to just sit down and pour thoughts from your brain and through your pen. All you have to do is set a timer and let it rip.

I’m going to throw one “don’t” into the mix. Don’t censor yourself. Whatever thoughts come out, write them down. You can decide whether to use, to expand, or to discard them later. For now, just let them come out. Set a timer and, in the name of repetition, let it rip.

Oh, that timer. Its length depends on the size of your project. For most articles I set a ten minute timer and go. (That’s how long it took me to write what you see below.) But if you’re working on something bigger, maybe the concept for an entire book or video series, it might be useful to set a longer timer. It’s also totally fine to break big projects up into smaller brain dump sessions. You’ll find a rhythm that works for you. Just start here.



The Mind Map

Ok, so you’ve gotten all the thoughts out of your head, now it’s time to start the organization process. A mind map is a tool that I picked up back in 2009 or 2010 at the first gig I had out of grad school. Actually, I learned it at the gym that Chris and I met at. Isn’t that just something?

So, mind maps.

I’m going to start by showing you an example and then explaining it. I think getting the visual first will better help you understand rather than me starting in with some kind of babble. Check it out.

Ok, your central concept/thought/idea goes in the center of the page. Once you have that down, scan your brain dump in search for the main, supporting themes of your idea. Draw connecting limbs out to them and put them in their own bubble. Once you have them listed, search for the secondary ideas that support each of the main supporting ideas–draw lines and connect them to the main ideas with bubbles. Then the tertiary…and so on. As you do this, other ideas that connect to each of the main and supporting ideas will pop into your head. Add those Bad Larrys to your mind map in the appropriate place. If you have a new supporting idea, draw a line and connect it to the appropriate concept/thought that it would most appropriately support.

At the end of the process, which I typically don’t put a time limit on, you’ll have all of your main and supporting concepts on the page with all of the ideas that define, support, and express them connected via lines and bubbles. It’s time to turn this into sensible and concise outline.


The Outline

Have a look at your beautiful, bubble-filled mind map. It’s time to have yourself a think. As you look are your map, consider which main concept/theme/idea makes sense to lead off your article. Jot it down first on your paper, and then organize the supporting bubbles in sequence underneath it. Scan the map again and add the next concept to the outline in the same way–and so on, and so forth.

Now, you might have all of this clear in your head already as you finish the map. You might already know the order and how to organize the supporting ideas under each concept. That is a fantastic situation. But, it doesn’t hurt to scan and think again with consideration for the main question you’re trying to answer or the idea you’re attempting to expand and illustrate. You just might find a better way to give your idea shape and a more approachable flow for presenting it.

As you outline, add little notes that help you to remember how you’d like to illustrate points or add stories into make your writing a little more lively. For example, I want to add in a fable about a mother that asks a monk to tell her child to stop eating sugar so that I can illustrate a point about how coaches need to be goal oriented if they expect to help their clients orient themselves toward aims. So, I noted that shit.


The Writing

Once you have your outline done, it’s time to write. Consult your outline, but let the first draft rip. There’s always time to edit your spelling and grammar. There’s always time to edit a thought into clearer expression. But if you’re trying to edit as you write you’re going to have damn hard time even getting your thoughts out. Just have a look at your outline, you can even turn back to your mind map and brain dump if need be, and just get after it. At this point in the process it’s not a bad idea to reintroduce the timer and race to see how much you can get out in thirty or so minutes. Keep the race going at intervals until you get it all out. Then clean it up.

Dump it. Map it. Outline it. Write it. Clean it up.

In 2010, two dudes Chris and Todd, started the business that would eventually become Strength Faction.

You know how they say the rest is history? Well, it’s not.

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