How to Create a Concept Map for Writing an Essay

Visual learners may find particular benefit in creating a concept map before writing their essays.
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Developed in 1972 by Professor Joseph D. Novak, concept maps “are graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge,” according to the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. They have become quite helpful in the organization and formation of complex essays. Particularly useful for visual learners, concept maps allow students to see patterns and connections between ideas that may not have been originally apparent. They help create outlines for well-articulated intellectual arguments.

1 Research

The best essays are well researched and developed and require much background information. Sometimes students are assigned an essay meant to reflect course content and they need only review lecture notes and chapter readings. However, in-depth papers and scholarly essays may require a solid foundation of academic research as a starting point.

2 Identify a Thesis

Alternately called a thesis, focus point, or broad topic, the first step to concept map development is to identify the question or area of study you will be exploring. For example, a student studying American History might settle upon the Civil War for a broad area of discussion. Plotted on a concept map, Civil War would take center stage set in a circle, square or alternate shape.

3 Brainstorm

Probably the most important step in map development is allowing for the rush of ideas around a central theme. Using a journalist's tool, students can ask who, what, where, when and why to draw more circles with concise points related to the main topic, connecting each new circle to the central idea with a line.

4 Follow a Hierarchal Pattern

With the example of the Civil War, a student might fill circles surrounding the war with component points such as armies, leaders, battles, historical context and causes. Following these still general ideas further down, the writer would use the map to shift from general concepts to very specific ideas. For example, in an exploration of battles, he or she might focus on strategies, pivotal conflicts between north and south, and the outcomes of individual skirmishes.

5 Make Connections

Looking for patterns and connections between concepts is nearly as important as brainstorming. If a writer mapped the subset of “leaders” below Civil War, he or she would need to include Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. If he or she also mapped “sides," the generals would be connected both as leaders and members to their respective sides. The lines that serve as links from one bubble to the next should also identify relationships between concepts. Words such as "examples," "causes," "results," "includes" and "influences" help to clarify connections. Using the example of generals, a writer might find slavery to be one of the war’s causes and might connect it to Lee with the word “believed.”

6 View the Map

By stepping back and viewing the concept map, students may formulate new ideas from previously unexplored areas of study. Perhaps in realizing the stark differences between the two Civil War generals, a writer might gain new perspective on the war and its battles. He or she might also reformulate a thesis and bring a clearer and more specific focus to the essay that will be written.

Linda Emma is a long-standing writer and editor. She is also a digital marketing professional and published author with more than 20 years experience in media and business. She works as a content manager and professional writing tutor at a private New England college. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northeastern University.