Mind Maps and Scrivener: It’s Easier Than It Looks

So it seems as if my last post on using Scrivener with Mind Maps for structured writing projects may have been confusing. Some people, who shall not be named (Marcus Sheridan), pointed out that the visual I included at the end of the post made this look intimidating. Since I really believe this is an easy and helpful technique (and I’m always game to disparage Marcus), a follow-up post seemed like the logical way to correct the confusion (hopefully).

Show Don’t Tell

Even though a picture is supposedly worth a thousand words, this one completely detracted from what I was trying to share. It makes the process look cumbersome rather than quick, easy and convenient. With that in mind, I wanted to create the a screencast showing just how easy it can be.

I did this in Mind Node Pro on my Mac, but you can just as easily use iThoughts HD to do it on your iPad.

Quickly “See” Your Ideas

The main reason I love this process… I never have to see a blank page. They scare the hell out of me and often lead to long-winded tangents. On the other hand, mind maps need starting point, enable you think through your ideas and keep you from wandering in unnecessary directions. They give you tangible elements that allow you to play with your ideas. They make it easy to reorder everything from the smallest thought to an entire section before you’ve ever written a sentence.

Flesh Your Ideas Out

Basic structure isn’t all that hard. Figuring out the most effective way to get your point across, now that can be a challenge. I know that many turn to outlines for this, but they don’t play well with me. So I would forego them, start with an idea, write and eventually fix my work in the editing process. The writing got done, but there was a tremendous amount of wasted time and worse yet, wasted writing. It wasn’t until I started with mind maps that I was finally able to create an outline that was not only simple, but useful.

Send It To Scrivener

Once you like what you see, the fun part begins. It’s a simple three-step process:

  1. Export your mind map as an OPML file.
  2. Open a blank Scrivener file or create a new folder inside an existing document
  3. Import your OPML file.

This takes your mind map and imports it as a functional outline. Essentially each section or node of your original mind map becomes an individual document that you can write in (another post for another day, less I want to evoke the ire of Marcus “The Sales Lion” Sheridan once more). From there, all that’s left to do is the writing (I know, easier said than done…).

Sorry if the picture in my last post made this all seem a little crazy, but the process is so easy. While I wouldn’t suggest it for short posts or freeform prose, it has changed the way I write longer, more structured work. In fact, this post took about half the time it normally would, leaving me plenty of time to create the video and to disparage Marcus some more here at the end! Check out the video, go tell Marcus why he is wrong (and clearly a terrible person to boot) and let me know if you ever feel crazy enough to give this a shot.

Disclaimer: Marcus is a really, really great guy who totally had a point. But you didn’t hear that from me.

  • http://twitter.com/yuvizalkow Yuvi Zalkow

    This is great, Michael! In particular, your video is so nice and tight and focused and clear. Fabulous.

    • http://michaelschechter.me MSchechter

      Thanks! Considering I had no idea what I was doing, I’m just happy the thing uploaded :) Fun what you can put together in a night.

      • Guest

        Nice post. MindNodePro is also available on the iPad, and it exports directly to OPML.

        • http://michaelschechter.me MSchechter

          Awesome! I’ve always been a fan of iThoughts HD as I like the way it handles the layout. My one complaint with MindNode on the Mac right now is that it doesn’t do a great job of organizing this feeds as you build. You often have to adjust things as you go. I haven’t tried it, but I would assume the iPad is the same. iThoughts on the other hand tends to fan things out to the right of the main node automatically where MindNode tends to completely circle the center thought. 

          It’s probably better for traditional mapping, but it tends to be worse for this exact use case.

          • Lary

            Michael – I’m an avid user of Mind Maps and a long time Scrivener aficionado and have used them together in just this way in the past.

            What you didn’t mention, however, is that by following your procedure, what’s in the Mind Map appears in the Synopsis ONLY, as separate index cards for each Mind Map node. The text does NOT appear as text in a binder document as it would have if you wrote it there. I haven’t spent the time to figure a workaround yet, but I find it very time-consuming and tedious to have to cut/paste what’s now in the Synopsis to a single file in the binder so you can use it as text and continue writing and editing.

            Have you had different results?

            Thanks, Lary

          • http://michaelschechter.me MSchechter

            I don’t kill myself on the phrasing all that much in the mapping stage. I just get the scaffolding down and then go in and write. Sometimes when I want to use something I wrote, I just double click in, copy it and paste it. I tend to treat each node as a question that needs answering rather than text that needs to be retyped, this way I don’t feel as if I’m staring at a blank page. The work is slightly receptive, but if you resize the synopsis bar so you can read the whole thing, it’s often faster to retype than it is to copy and paste.

            There is a workaround, but it can be a bit clunky. If you select the node in thoughts and pull down that tab that is directly below the file name at the top of the screen you can type notes there. They will come along with your document, but it really kills the flow of mapping. That said, if you find yourself on the road and want to start writing on the iPad in a way that easily gets back into Scrivener, you can pull that text tray down and get going. Each one is independent to the individual node.

            That said, it would be a pretty kick ass feature if there was a button that somehow copied all of the text from your nodes into the text fields… maybe we should write into the iThoughts HD team and let the nagging begin!

          • Lary

            Michael,

            Thanks for your note. I understand how you use it and I do much the same, although when I get on a roll, I like to start adding text. Thanks for the reminder on the notes tab in iThoughts. I agree it is limiting because it breaks the flow and can’t be seen at a glance, but at least it converts to text.

            I’ve found that the nodes go only to the top line of the Synopsis title and I am unfamiliar with a control to word-wrap the title to it all appears on the card in Inspector. Have you found one?

            I think we should pitch it to iThoughts. I’ve found them to be very responsive and helpful and their current version is heads above the Mind Manager companion app.

          • http://michaelschechter.me MSchechter

            It is certainly an opportunity when you consider that scrivener is yet to really release an iPad app, but you have to wonder how quickly it would be frustrating that you can’t sync things back and fourth (although maybe you can by continually exporting in OPML). As for the Synopsis title, the only thing you can do is click to have it offer two lines in the Preference pane (or at least that’s the only one I know of).

          • Lary

            Thanks, Michael. I think we see it about the same way.

  • http://www.thinkinprojects.com Rafal

    I see how such a big mind map could be confusing and overwhelming. Yet at the same time if you break things down to the smallest detail it’s astonishing how much processing power we have in our heads.

    Often times we don’t realize how complex certain processes/workflows are until you look at every single piece individually. “Oh it’s just a blog post” or “oh it’s just an article” we often think but after closer look there is more than meets the eye.

    Personally I enjoyed both mind map form the previous post and this video.

    • http://michaelschechter.me MSchechter

      Couldn’t agree more. The more familiar and intimate you become with your tools, the more you offload to them and the more can focus in on the work. I often get flack from friends for using so many apps, but the truth is that they’ve become a near invisible tapestry that just let me get things done.

      The trouble comes when you try to do things with the stock items or, like you said, treat it as this one thing that doesn’t have several small parts that could and should be handled more effectively.

      That said, it’s a process and those of us who have been at it see the benefits. Those just getting started often get scared out of their mind.

  • DJMills

    Thanks for the demo. I will see if I can duplicate in Windows Op System.

    • http://michaelschechter.me MSchechter

      Can’t imagine it wouldn’t. Scrivener has a Windows version and I can’t imagine that there isn’t a mind mapping program for windows that exports to OPML.

      • Carla

        Scrivener for windows doesn’t import OPML! After reading your post,I bought ithoughts, and when I went to import OPML in scrivener, there was no option at all. OPML doesn’t even appear in the windows manual for scrivener. Sooooo disappointing!

        • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

          I’m so sorry about this. I can’t imagine that it won’t come to Windows considering the OPML movement is such a well regarded feature. Have you tried contacting the developer?

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  • http://www.factotumep.com Erin Feldman

    That has to be one of the easiest things I’ve done! Take that, Marcus Sheridan.

    • http://michaelschechter.me MSchechter

      Seriously, that guy has no idea what he is talking about… Sales… Lions… What do those two have to do with one another?!?

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  • http://twitter.com/jmbatista José Manuel Batista

    How do you control the importing ordering sequence of the nodes into Scrivener?

    • http://michaelschechter.me MSchechter

      The order of the map determines the order of import. All children will appear as subfolders. So what you see on your screen is what you can write into.

  • Ajwspjs1

    I’ve just seen your post! I’ve been doing this for the past month (OPML &/or RTFD) into Scrivener. It’s a lot of fun and DOES help with the writing. Scrivener is my “baby” when it comes to writing. Nothing beats it, but the mind-mapping does help with the ordering of thoughts/topics. It’s nice to see that others do the same.

  • Good153

    Thanks a lot for your sharing.  It seems that my Scrivener (windows version) is unable to import the mind map file.  It does not import opml.  Or is it just me?  Thanks.

    • http://michaelschechter.me MSchechter

      I’m a Mac user so I wouldn’t be sure, but Scrivener’s support team has been amazing the few times that I’ve needed them.

    • Tim Rogers

      I had the same problem as a Mac user if I tried to drag and drop the file onto Scrivener. I got a ‘Scrivener can’t open OPML’ type warning. A couple of other methods got the same result (I don’t remember what they were now). Using Michael’s method worked around this. There’s a youtube that shows how – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg22ASHYpE0

    • SB

      Excellent news !

      The new Scrivener 1.5.3 for Windows includes opml (as well as Freemind) import and export.

  • THANK YOU

    OMG, so easy. Thanks for posting this!

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      Happy to help! I have another, slightly modified version of this coming next week as well.

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  • Lamike

    Good one Michael. Thanks for all you give our community. First tripped onto this via David Sparks’ OPML Dancing post.

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      Happy to give the little that I can! And thank heavens for that OPML post. Cant tell you how much milage I’ve gotten out of David’s trick.

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  • http://www.kenebaker.com/ Ken E Baker

    Super awesome article – and kudus to the high quality explanation video. I use Mindjet Mindmanager – an amazing program, but unfortunately I dont think it has options to export or save to OPML. Such is life – but again, great article.

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