Tools for Writing 5 – FreeMind

As part of my series on tools for writing, I wanted to take a look at, not only tools for drafting and editing your work, but also tools to help you plan what you write and structure your thoughts.

In this post we’ll be looking at FreeMind, a mind-mapping tool which allows you to organise and structure your ideas.  FreeMind runs on a variety of platforms and is an Open Source project, so it is entirely free.  Don’t be put off by the fact that this is not a commercial product – it is well-supported, under continuous development and is downloaded about 6,000 times a day – so it’s a very popular product.  I have used it for years and found it to be very reliable.  You will need Java runtime on your machine to run it, though, but that is also free and many people will already have it installed.

Basic Mind Map (click to expand)

When you first open FreeMind, this is the screen with which you are presented (this is on a Mac, on Windows it adopts the Microsoft look and feel).  There is a menu, a toolbar with usual Save, Print, Copy Paste etc with a vertical toolbar with lots of small icons.

In the centre of the screen is an oval with the word “New Mindmap” in it.  If you type at this point it will replace these words with a title of your choosing, usually the subject of this particular map.

If you are familiar with the techniques of mind-mapping then you are going to be right at home, but if you haven’t used this technique are are unfamiliar with it then I would suggest you read the Wikipedia entry on Mind-Mapping, which is agnostic of any tool, or get hold of Tony Buzan’s book Mind Mapping: Kickstart your creativity and transform your life.  The claim may be hyperbole but it is an interesting book.

As a very quick introduction for the uninitiated, mind mapping allows you to connect thoughts and ideas to a central concept and then connect and re-organise those ideas in a non-linear manner allowing increasing levels of detail.  It’s like an ever-expanding tree of ideas, notes, concepts, reminders and thoughts, specifically arranged around a central concept.

Mind Map of Three Act Structure (click to expand)

The image, right, shows an example mind-map of the three-act structure sometimes used for screen-writing.  You can see that the basic elements of Setup, Confrontation and Resolution act like branches for the elements connected to them.  To add a new branch, simply click on an existing branch (or navigate using the arrow keys) and press the space bar.  You are then invited to enter text to identify the new element.  To add an additional node to the end of an element, simply press the Tab key.  That’s about as complicated as it gets.

If you want to relocate an element somewhere else on the diagram, simply click and drag the element over another element.  If you drag it over the outside of the element, a grey gradient will appear on the outside and it will add it as a child-node.  If you drag it over the top, the gradient will appear across the top and the element will be added as a peer-node (at the same level).

This very easy and intuitive interaction makes it very simple and direct to use, and allows you to express very complex ideas in ways that are easy to understand and manipulate.  Once you have the basic structure in place you can add in colours and grouping and change the formatting of the information, perhaps denoting various aspects through colour, position or grouping (see below).

Formatted Mind-Map (click to expand)

It is up to you how you format your mind-map.  You could use green, for instance to denote a particular character’s story arc, or group things using clouds (The coloured enclosed area shown on the right of the image) to structure a scene or a theme.

You can also see that the connecting lines can be formatted and that elements can either be enclosed in bubbles or simply underlined.  You can also use bold or italic to add emphasis or simply write in capitals if you want something to stand out.  The point of the formatting is to make the map visually engaging and to allow you to highlight elements that are important within your concept. By drawing the eye to particular aspects you are focusing on those items that you think are important.

For quite large diagrams it can all get a little overwhelming, so by clicking on a particular element, you can collapse any child elements into that element, leaving only a small circle at the end denoting that this note can be expanded to reveal more details.  In this way it is possible to focus on one aspect of the diagram without thoughts from other aspects intruding.

Mind-Map Showing Notes (click to expand)

There may also be further details that you want to capture but you don’t want shown on the diagram, and this can be achieved using Notes.  In the image to the right on the item 19th Century London there is a small note icon which indicates that notes have been added.

When this item is clicked on, a sub-pane opens at the bottom of the screen allowing text to be entered that is associated with that element.  This can be very useful for research notes or to-do list items.

The tool also allows you to have multiple maps open at once, with a next-map and previous-map button on the toolbar to help you navigate between them, so you could, for instance, have one map which details the plot and sequence of events while another details characters and their attributes, habits and appearance.

Links can be embedded into the nodes so that clicking a link opens another mind-map or an external reference to a file or website.  In this way whole networks of mind-maps can be constructed.

The Export function allows you to convert the mind maps into a range of formats, so that you could embed them into a web-page (an interesting way to present a site-map for example) or as a PDF, an Open Office document or as an image, either with embedded links of simply a picture.

As a tool for developing and structuring creative ideas, FreeMind works very well indeed.  It is extremely flexible in its approach and allows a range of visual notations to be used.  It is very quick and intuitive to use and gives you a powerful way of capturing and presenting ideas in a way that few other tools can match.

Oh, and did I mention that it’s free?


  1. #1 by Mike on July 8, 2010 - 11:33 pm

    I’ll take a look at Auto-crit and see if I can review it.

  2. #2 by Kay Tee on July 8, 2010 - 11:16 pm

    Hi, can you review AutoCrit? I think it’s the best software out there for fiction writers at the editing stage. It’s really amazing at finding the weaknesses in my manuscripts.

  3. #3 by Aliette de Bodard on July 7, 2010 - 9:33 pm

    I love Freemind. A friend recommended it to me a few years ago, and I’ve been addicted to it ever since. I was overjoyed to discover it was multi-platform (I have a mac and a PC). It’s so great for getting the brainstorming juices flowing.

  4. #4 by Tom Murphy on July 5, 2010 - 2:11 pm

    Hi Mike – I’m enjoying these recommendations. Whenever I get stuck on a project, I sometimes find that doing a bit of work on it with a new toy – I mean, *tool* gives me a fresh perspetive on it and a bit of impetus. I used FreeMind quite a bit when I was doing my screenwriting MA – more on the academic essay units than the actual writing, but it’s very good for banging out ideas in a way that keeps them sufficiently coherent for later development.

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