When you are faced with a blank page, consider creating a mind map.
A mind map is a visual way to capture thoughts and ideas as they occur to you, and to indicate relationships between those ideas. Because they do not need to be created sequentially, they are ideal when you are just getting started and your brain is full of stuff. Examples of when you might find a mind map particularly useful include: writing a new chapter/article; project planning an activity for your research; and creating your to-do list. There are many more examples of PhD researchers using mind maps on Twitter.
To create a mind map, first gather your tools. If you are on a University computer, you may have Mindjet MindManager already installed, or you can install it via mySoftware. Alternatively, the free trial version of XMind will give you much of the useful functionality (and the full version is cheaper). For other software options (including cloud- and web-based options), see the Resources list from Diversity and Ability. But of course, good old-fashioned pen and paper works really well for mind mapping, and you may prefer it.
Start in the centre of your page with your theme. If you are using software for your mind map, you can now start to simply dump as many thoughts/ideas as you have related to this theme onto the page. Keep the ideas small and simple, but make sure you capture all of them. When the flow of ideas slows down, start to organise the ones you already have into sub-themes. Create a heading for your sub-themes radiating from your central theme and you can drag and drop each of your ideas into the relevant one. Review your sub-themes – does this spark new ideas? If so, add them in. Each branch of your mind map can divide into as many smaller branches as you like. Once all your ideas are on the page, take a break. When you return to it later, more ideas may occur to you.
The joy of a mind map is that you don’t need to know where to start. Your ideas do not need to arrive in a linear order. You can scribble all over the page and link things with long, wavy lines, or rearrange things on screen to your heart’s content. And once you’ve finished, you may be surprised at how much you have set down, or how coherent it looks now you’ve organised it into different branches.
If you are using software (examples here taken from Mindjet MindManager), this is the point at which it really comes into its own. If you have planned a pieces of writing, you can directly export your mind map as an outline Word document (check the order of your sub-topics by using View > Outline, then File > Export). If you’re planning a project, you can create a Gantt chart directly from your mind map (use Task > Add Task Info to add dates to each item, then Task > Show Gantt Chart).
Have you used mind maps to visualise your research or writing? Do you have examples to share? How have they helped you to organise your thoughts?