Mind-Mapping with Markdown

Man resting in the branches of a huge tree

I’ve never felt that digital mind-mapping apps offered much improvement over pen-and-paper drawing. Mind mapping is supposed to be a creative, right-brained experience, and so when I do it, I like to write with my hands, in multiple colors, drawing pictures or writing text according to my whim. However, markdown is also a great way of getting your thoughts out of your head and easily organizing them with a set of simple keystrokes. With Brett Terpstra’s markdown mind map extension, you can create visual mind maps with the familiar outlining tools we already know in markdown.

What’s Wrong with Digital Mind-Mapping?

Most digital mind-mapping apps force you to adopt their fussy paradigm for creating different “nodes” in your map (whether parent/child, sibling, etc.), and it often feels like I’m switching back and forth between mousing, typing, mousing again, keystrokes, typing, import a photo, oops you can’t draw in this app, etc. Brainstorming tools should let you work as fast as you can think, and not force you to think about how to work the controls of the tool itself. Taking my hands off the keyboard to click bubbles just doesn’t work for me.

Draw if you Can

This is why I advise people to consider doing their mind mapping on paper or a whiteboard where they are not constrained by the limitations of an app. Use your favorite pens, use colors, draw pictures, go on insane branching tangents — follow your creativity! After you’ve done the brainwork you need, you can take a photo on your phone and save up to Evernote where your handwriting becomes searchable text.

Type if you Must

When I have a good idea while I’m working on my computer, I just start writing in my markdown editor. Unlike a mind-mapping app, markdown doesn’t FORCE me into a mind-mapping outline, but it does give me simple tools and keystrokes to organize my writing into a basic outline hierarchy if I want to.

Adding hashmarks to the beginning of a line designates that as a header, and those headers can form a hierarchical document outline with a minimum of effort or “switching gears” while you think. 

For example, I can write the following… 

# Main Title

## Sub-topic 1

## Sub-topic 2

### Child of Sub-topic 2

### Sub-topic 3

… and a markdown to mindmap tool can interpret that to look like this:

This approach also nicely supports writing texts and lists under each heading. Plain text (like paragraph text) is ignored from your mind map, but bullet points (unordered lists) are included as child nodes.

Markdown to Mind Map

Brett Terpstra has created an awesome script that translates the familiar markdown outline structure into a visual mind-map to illustrate the branching relationships between concepts. This strikes the perfect balance of getting out of my way while I’m just thinking out my ideas, but then, when I catch my breath, giving me an easy way to organize and communicate my ideas. This, to me, is the ideal way a digital mind map should work — don’t make me think about the tool while I’m thinking about my idea!

Another tool that works similarly is the Markdown Mind Map Preview for Microsoft Visual Studio Code. VS Code is actually a great extensible text editor that supports a huge variety of community plugins like this one, making it a very capable markdown editor in its own right. I don’t use VS Code as my daily driver for writing markdown since it can be distracting to have all kinds of extra functionality at your fingertips, but I normally start documents in MacDown because it’s free fast and simple, then paste into VS Code or another Markdown editor if I need a specific kind of functionality that MacDown doesn’t provide.

Keep it Simple

All of this is to say that your mind mapping process should not add a lot of cognitive load to your mind-space. The method you choose to brainstorm should require the least attention to the actual tools you’re using so you can focus on getting your ideas out. For some that’s physical writing (pen and paper) while others (like me) may prefer a keyboard-driven approach. The worst of all worlds is an overly fidgety digital mind-mapping tool that makes you mouse, type, drag, drop, import, rearrange, and beautify until you’ve completely forgotten what you’re doing. Hopefully these tools can help you keep your mind on your mind long enough to share your thoughts with the world.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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