Northcentral University Writing Center

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Writing Center

Clustering or Mapping


Clustering (sometimes called Mapping) is a lot like Brainstorming or Listing, but in a less linear way. This is very useful to writers that prefer a more visual approach to ideas. Rather than writing things in a list, the topic is written in the center of the page and circled. (Please note that there are also software programs, such as Inspiration, which will generate clusters for the writer.) As a new key words and phrases come to mind and are written down, the writer circles them and links them to the topic with a line. The connections between ideas, words, and images will help the writer to see the relationship between various ideas when the topic is very broad and when the writer needs to focus on and organize subtopics. 


For the writer’s full benefit, here’s how clustering should be done:


1. Start from the center of the page. Write the subject or topic for the cluster in the middle of a clean page of paper and circle it. The topic should be centered to allow for writing and new words in all directions of the page. Try to limit the topic to a single words or a short phrase. 

2. Write down any idea, word, image or reaction that comes to mind.  Look at the subject-word or short phrase of the topic (Main Idea). When a new idea, word, or image comes to mind, write it down close to the main idea, circling the new idea, word, or image and connecting it to the main idea with a line or string (Main Idea)-----(Idea 1). Keep adding ideas, words, or images, circling and connecting them to the Main Idea at the center of the page. If any of the ideas, words, or images seem to be related or connected to each other, connect these ideas with a separate line or string (Idea 1)------(Idea 3). If a new idea, word, or image begins to lead to sub-ideas, write down and circle the new words, ideas, or images, and connect them with a line or string (Idea 2)------(Sub-idea A). For example, Idea 3 may eventually lead to four Sub-ideas, A, B, C, D. In this way, the cluster begins to work like a non-linear outline: the original topic is in the center (Main Idea), circled by and connected to more ideas, words, and images (Ideas 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.), and the Sub-ideas are circled and connected to one of the ideas, words, or images surrounding the original topic (Sub-ideas 1A, 1B, 1C; 2A, 2B; 3A, 3B, 3C). For a visual example of clustering, please click here.


3. Keep working without stopping or editing. Write whatever comes to mind. The cluster does not need to make sense to anyone but the writer, so meaning and significance is not important. What is important is that the writer does not interrupt the flow of ideas. Keep working.


4. Keep concentrating on the assigned topic clustering ideas, words and images.  As more ideas, words, or images are added, some will link to the main topic and others will link to supporting points. The writer will keep seeing new relationships between various ideas, and many subtopics will also be discovered and associated with the main topic. Continue to capture and string ideas, words, or images together until the creative mind stops reacting and the ideas stop flowing.

When the writer has finished clustering, these ideas may be used to start to a Freewrite, to write an outline, or to start a first draft. Some writers may also find it useful to add a new cluster for one of the subtopics.


*Please note that the writer may also integrate the Journalistic Modes of Questioning into the cluster or map by writing each of the journalist’s questions on different parts of the page and circling and linking ideas and answers to each question.


For more information on this topic, please visit the Writing Centers at Colorado, Purdue, and Chapel Hill.