Using Freemind as a Writing Planner

Freemind, the open source Java based mind mapping application, makes a great writing planning tool. A final release of version 0.9 has been a long time coming, but the current release candidates are very usable and stable, and I would recommend making the extra effort to install one of these rather than an 0.8 “stable” release. Fortunately, the 0.9 RCs have made it into the standard Ubuntu 10.04 repository.

Thankfully, Freemind is a keyboard friendly application. The first thing I do when I'm using Freemind to plan out an article is to rename the first node by hitting F2. You can add new nodes by hitting the insert key and then typing in a title for the node.

At the beginning of the process, I prefer an approach of dumping ideas into the mind map rather than worrying about where it belongs in the overall structure. Often, I read up on the subject while alt-tabbing back to Freemind to make notes.

Before long, you'll want to save the file, and this reveals a weakness of Freemind. Owing to the program's Java roots, the file requester is a bit cumbersome and lacks directory hot links. Typically, however, it's an awkwardness that you'll only have to deal with once per project. However, the Java nature of the program means that the user interface couldn't really be described as lightning fast. By the same token, initial application launch time is on the slow side. Neither of these problems make much difference for typical desktop usage but Freemind wouldn't be my first choice in a resource constrained environment.

Once I've got a few ideas onto the page, in the form of branches that are linked to the initial node, I start to think about structure. I've seen mind maps that go off in all directions, but my view is that a document such as the main body of a magazine article is ultimately linear, and for this reason, I like to end up with a mind map that is as vertical as possible. It's like a game of patience, and I tend to spot outlying ideas that can be added to the main stack of ideas, along with branches that can be combined. If an idea won't fit into this scheme it often means that it doesn't have a place in the article, or it would work better as the basis of a side bar.

You can move a branch to a different place in the structure by holding down the control key and using the cursor keys. Given the graphical approach of mind maps, the mouse is well suited to moving branches around using drag and drop, but keyboard control is sometimes preferable for speedy rearrangements.

Text notes that can be attached to a branch are a welcome addition of 0.9. Personally, I use this feature quite a lot, so I expand the notes window to fill the bottom half of the main window.

The export features gives you everything that you're likely to need, supporting various text based and graphical export formats by default. Although, inter-operation with other, similar tools is limited. SVG export is enabled with the addition of a separate package.

The application itself features plenty of extra features such as the inclusion of hyperlinks and images, but as you might imagine, in this role, I tend to only use the basic features. Being Java, it's available for most of the major platforms, often an important consideration when evaluating a creative application.

What about the rest of you, what writing planning tools do you use?


UK based freelance writer Michael Reed writes about technology, retro computing, geek culture and gender politics.


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Outline Views

Marc Achtelig's picture

When planning the structure of a document and collecting information to include, the outline view of a text processor such as OpenOffice is also very helpful. If anybody is looking for a list of MindMapping tools, maybe the following list is of interest:

This was a very good idea!

medium's picture

This was a very good idea!


toni's picture

I use FreeMind when experimenting with software. It's like a journal. In go notes on configuration options, while linking as well to scripts I wrote for the occasion.


John Abbott's picture

I have learned to very effectively create chapter baskets. Free thoughts go onto the front page, then the information, pictures and quotes go into secondary pages. As I think the process through I can move material from one basket to another. It has been a very powerful tool for me.


meanpt's picture

Vue is also a java application. Provides a presentation tool which is better than that of Xmind. I like Xmind but it's too heavy.

XMind - but mostly I use FreeMind

Jeff Best's picture

I have experimented with XMind, which can import FreeMind maps. However, for the last few years I have used FreeMind for far more than just document planning.

It records actions on behalf of the various organisations I work for - think phone calls, post, emails, meetings, visits, deliveries, face-to-face conversations, etc. That helps me to write my quarterly Director's reports.

I have used it to map the electrical connections in the house, the clocks that need changing forward or backwards for Summer Time, battery requirements of various devices, the plantings in the garden, software installed on various computers, the file system and web links for various development environments, requirements analyses, project goals, lecture plans, etc. All important is my map of mind maps that I use to navigate between several dozen other maps. In fact, linking file system and web elements within a single map is one of the most valuable features. If only I could add in links to my mail archive and various database queries, the tool would be nearly perfect!

I do so much work for so many different organisations that a single planning tool would struggle to manage, but with FreeMind, I can build a map of current "clients" and link that to separate client work plan maps, with each of those linking to spreadsheets, documents, gantt chart plans, etc.

I also like that TikiWiki can display a FreeMind map of Wiki nodes. I hope that the developers can deliver editing of web-page embedded mind maps before too long. Using mind maps to design, restructure, navigate and edit web content would be so useful.

Creating Road Maps with mind mappers?

Dennis Schafroth's picture

I haved been looking for a tool that can generate some decent Road maps graph. Mind Mapping is similar (but not quite). Do you gave any idea for such tool?

Thanks for the comments

Michael Reed's picture

Thanks, I've given it a quick go and it does look interesting. Shame that they couldn't have replaced the file requester dialog. I'm in the middle of a big project at the moment, but I may consider swapping over to it in the future.

Another interesting looking one. I used to use Kdissert before I switched over to Freemind. I could never get Semantik to build while it was in alpha and I haven't looked at it since.

Personally, I just use the map as a framework. I use the notes feature for the odd bit of info. Occasionally, I've written the a paragraph as a note. That way, I don't have to keep any notes in the body text in the word processor (LyX or Abiword).

UK based freelance writer Michael Reed writes about technology, retro computing, geek culture and gender politics.

I have been using MindJet for

sxw123's picture

I have been using MindJet for a very long time. I use it with JVCGantt and MS Project. I could see using Freemind for my documentation projects, that I currently do in MindJet. MindJet is very expensive as well, but you get tons more cool features. How do you "map" your maps to your articles. Do you just use the maps for an outline / article framework, or do you actually use the notes sections for the content?


Maarten's picture

I currently prefer treeline. While is is not so graphical as most mind mappers I like the way you can redefine the nodes and structure them by defining your own collection of datatypes. On occasion I use semantik (formerly known as dissert)


Kyle Maxwell's picture

Freeplane is a file-compatible fork of Freemind with lots of additional features. Still Java-based but you might find it works better for your needs.