I’m writing this piece now as procrastination from my own research and writing, as I’m currently having trouble with the organization of a book project. A strategy I’ve been using successfully for a number of years now is making visual representations or maps of arguments I’m making in an article or chapter. This mapping looks a lot like clustering but isn’t intended to help me generate new ideas so much as to organize an article or chapter once I know what my thesis is and what evidence I plan to use to support it.
I used to draw them on plain white paper, using a pen with a good ink flow in a bright color, copying it over and over onto a new piece of paper until I was satisfied and had a clean copy to refer to while writing and revising. Now, I make my maps in google.docs using the drawing function. I like being able to play with using circles or squares and different size arrows to build an organized argument, and I really like being able to copy and paste from other documents – sometimes copying text from my map directly into my article or vice versa. I sometimes print them and place them next to my keyboard to guide me while drafting and revising. I call these focused clusters or visual representations my argument maps because they guide me as I write. If I get lost in my writing, I go back to my map. That doesn’t mean I stick slavishly to it, but that looking at that clear page or screen reminds me of what order I want to say things and why.
Sometimes I’ll be working along on a draft and think I have an organizational problem, but when I go back to my map I realize I don’t – I either just don’t know enough about an aspect of my topic and have to do more research, review my research, or make changes to my map because I’ve learned something since I wrote the map. In other words, sometimes the problem isn’t my organization but some problem with my evidence that I need to work out. Sometimes, I just have to charge ahead and follow a map even if I’m not keen on some part of it, knowing that the map gets me writing, and, in the course of writing, I will figure out what’s bothering me. I find it really satisfying to make, revise, and work with an argument map.
Kate Ryan is Director of Composition and Associate Professor of English