The Not Nurse Ratched System for Mind-Mapping Markdown

Introduction

If you like using mind maps and Markdown, this post is for you. If you don’t, check out the links below and give me a chance to interest you in both. I’ll show you how to create a mind map that exports to a finished Markdown document. I’ll provide a bit of background and linkage, but readers who want to skip to the good stuff can go right ahead.

Mind maps and apps

Mind maps are the perfect way to brainstorm. If you’ve ever doodled on paper to flesh out an idea, mind map applications are for you. No shortage of such applications exists. Most people seem to like colorful graphical ones that emulate drawing on paper, with the ability to draw arrows and move circled ideas around. I tend to get too caught up in figuring out how to get the software to do what I want with those, although I do have Mindnode Pro for my Mac and iThoughts HD for my iPad. iThoughts HD plays nicely with Tree.app (coming up) because it recognizes Tree’s notes fields, which are vital in my system, as you’ll see shortly.

For my money, though, Tree.app is the be-all end-all in Mac mind-mapping applications. It doesn’t have fancy colors or bubbles or arrows. What it does have is an intuitive interface that lets me easily organize what I’m thinking about, along with equally intuitive ways to click and drag and add notes. My geek hero Brett Terpstra has a review that says it all, so I will say no more about Tree.app, except that it offers a trial download, so there’s no reason not to check it out.

Markdown

I write just about everything in Markdown and have for so long that I forget not everyone does. I think people assume Markdown is too technical for them, whereas it’s just the opposite; Markdown is plain text. For authors who write for the Web, Markdown is a no-brainer choice. For longer print-destined materials, I do tend to use Scrivener or Pages or, God forbid, Word, because I get bogged down in exporting it for non-HTML uses, but other people don’t have that issue, so your mileage may vary.

If you’re skimming over this because you don’t use Markdown, stop! Read! Markdown is so very useful that it’s worth a try. It is John Gruber’s brainchild, so you should read what he has to say about it. Then, if you have an iPad or a Mavericks-running Mac that can read iBooks, buy MacSparky’s Markdown field guide right now and go read it. My favorite Markdown cheat sheet is this Wiki, but look around if you don’t like this one.

Let the magic begin

Now I will demonstrate my system for tweaking Tree so that I can easily sketch out my ideas there and end up with an exported Markdown file that’s nearly ready to go: no rewriting from scratch required. I used Clarify to make the demonstration after listening to Allison Sheridon rhapsodize about it on her podcast for so long that I finally bought it (it also has a trial download). So, without further ado, I present the Not Nurse Ratched system for mind-mapping Markdown.

The system

Note field

The part of Tree that lets this work is its Note field. This field is meant to add information about your outline item, but I don't let that stop me. I use it to write all of my text. Add a note to an outline item by clicking the Edit Note icon, present by default in the toolbar, or use the keyboard shortcut cmd-'.

Note field

Numbering preferences

Set up Tree to make this system work by opening the preferences pane and going to the Numbering tab. Make it look like this:

Numbering preferences

Repeat

Continue clicking through the levels in this pane for as many header levels as you think you'll use. When you're done, click OK to exit the preferences pane.

Repeat

Show numbering before export

Map out your document with Tree as you normally would. Add items and children. Add notes to them and type in the text you'll want in your Markdown document. So far, you'll have a regular Tree mind map except it probably has more in-depth notes than your average mind map. Now it's time to make it all work. In Tree, choose "Show/Hide Numbering" to make the headers you made before show up in the file.

Show numbering before export

The basic idea

This is the crux of what you're doing. Top level headers end up with a # Markdown header indicator instead of an outline indicator, and so on with level 2 and 3 headers. Don't forget that the notes fields can contain as much text as you want to put in there, and they remain collapsible so you can work on one thing at a time.

The basic idea

Finishing steps

When you're done writing, export the file by going to File -> Export.... Choose the options as shown below. "Include Numbering" will put the Markdown heading levels in the exported file. "Append Indent" is checked by default, so make sure you uncheck it. Save it somewhere you can find it easily, and then you're ready to open the file with your favorite Markdown editor (I prefer Byword, available for Mac and iOS).

Finishing steps

Final words

This sounds like a lot of steps, but once the system is set up, it is very simple to use. I use it instead of Scrivener for nearly everything now because it serves the same purposes for me without all the complicated extras. If you try it, please leave a comment and let me know what you think.