How to Make a Cluster Map

Student writing at desk.
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Many students are stuck when they first get a writing assignment. They may have a vague idea of what they want to write about, or not, but either way they are not ready to sit at the computer and dive right in. One way to develop ideas for a paper is cluster mapping, which, according to Empire State College, is a way to consider a topic in new, and hopefully, more interesting ways. There is more than one way to generate a cluster map.

1 Choosing a Topic

The first step is to choose a general topic. Some students try to take on too much at once. They try to come up with a full thesis statement or main idea right off the bat, but really all you need at this point is a single word that describes the general idea of your paper. If you had to write a book review, for example, the title of the book you are writing about would be the topic. Likewise, if you were writing about your opinions on justice, then “justice” would be your central topic. You should write your topic in the middle of your page and circle it.

2 Generating Subtopics

Once you have your topic, the fun part begins. Without second guessing yourself, start writing out all the ideas that your topic makes you think about. Again, these should be single words or short phrases. Once you write an idea down, circle it, and then draw a line connecting the subtopic to the topic. For example, if you were writing about justice, then you may have some ideas like “crime rate” or “jail.” The important thing is to not edit your ideas as you go. Just let them come freely.

3 Generating Details

Now it’s time to go back to the subtopics you just wrote down and take a look at them. For each one -- or each one that looks promising -- generate some details. To do so, write out single words and short phrases that come to mind when you think of that subtopic. Circle those words or phrases as you write them and connect them to the appropriate subtopics with lines.

4 Doing It Backwards

There is another way. Some people, once they have a topic, are good at generating a bunch of specific details but are unsure about how to put those details together. If that describes you, then you can use cluster mapping backwards. Generate a list of ideas, possibly on note cards or on the computer, and then lay those ideas out. Start grouping similar ideas together so you can work your way up to your main idea. Once you've gotten your groups together, you can generate the same map as above.

5 Wrap-up

At this point, you should have a very messy sheet of paper. More importantly, you should be able to look at the ideas you generated, see some connections, and have a better idea of where you’re going with your paper. You may even be ready to start work on your thesis statement or research question if you’re writing a research paper.

Residing in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Buddy Shay has been in higher education since 2003 with experience in the classroom and in academic support. He holds a Master of Arts in English. Shay is also a certified practitioner of the MBTI personality instrument and has previous experience working with secondary students.