mapping a text

I love a good map. I’m not talking about the satnav you have in your car, or its predecessor the street directory. Nor am I talking about the underground map I occasionally have to consult when I’m down in London. No, I’m talking about the kind of map you make yourself, a map of something that’s important to you.

But I’m not talking about your standard mind-mapping map, or spider mapping labels and connecting lines. Perhaps it is an emotional map, or a map of relationships, or a map of an intellectual territory.

And I’m thinking about how to adapt this kind of personal mapping for use in academic writing.

I often think about my current book project in map terms. There’s a number of sites on my book map, primarily obstacles! You might recognise

  • the plains of procrastination
  • the temple of possibilities
  • the quicksands of additional reading
  • the vale of complete confusion
  • the peaks of abandoned drafts
  • the  mounds of good intentions
  • the thicket of competing deadlines
  • the pond of insight
  • the wells of sustained writing

And so on. Add your own contours.

Well it’s quite cathartic really isn’t it to get that all out in the open.

I imagine making these topographic  features into some kind of physical map like this one – The Geographical Guide to a Woman’s Heart Emphasizing Points of Interest to the Romantic Traveler: illustration by Jo Lowrey for McCall’ s Magazine, 1960.


I imagine I could substitute a book shape for the heart, and then just start carving out the relative territories.

A states-of-writing map – like this illustration – could have its uses in a shared discussion about writing. Writing a book, a thesis, a journal article in particular. None of these texts are straightforward. Most writers can benefit from sharing some of the common highs, lows and ways we‘ve found to get a piece of writing done. And maps might help the conversation.

But I’m even more interested in whether there’s any mileage in thinking about the book or thesis text itself as a map. What if my book was a map? What if your thesis was a map?

If we think about a thesis or a book sustaining an argument throughout, then it ought to be possible to map each of the major moves, each logical step presented as a landmark. It surely ought to be possible to draw such a map. A map like that of a national park. Or a grand estate.

So, perhaps you’d need a visitor centre at the start which explains what kind of country (text) you are about to enter and what’s special about it. You’d be given a sense of the experience you’re about to have. There’d be pointers to different stages of the track you are to follow.

And maybe you’d need an interpretation board just as you set out. Something that tells you about the history of the area, how it got to be the way that it is, the things you need to understand before you set out.  

There’d have to be some safety instructions too which tell you about the ways in which the park was made and therefore why it’s safe for you to trust the path, lookouts and signposts. All this, and you’d be happily oriented to the textual journey to come.

You get the idea.

I’m interested in how visualising via mapping might help to specify the most important features of a thesis or book. How focusing on the major landmarks might help cut through distracting detail. So you can see the forest for the trees. Yes, mapping might help sort out what is sometimes called the the red thread of the thesis.

Of course, I’ve had a go myself. I decided to try to map my book.

It’s a work in progress my map. I’ve started by drawing the major landmarks first on small sheets of paper . My plan is to then stick them on my map, and then go on to name the other surrounding features of the landscape.

This exercise has already forced me to think again about the main points to go in each chapter, and the order of chapters.

I’ll just show you the first two major landmarks on my book map. Excuse my rough and ready sketching but the point here is not about looking polished. Here are my first and second chapters, they are the scene-setting context and the methods. You can see that each landmark is a little graphic, the kind you might also see on – and as – a signpost. They are a kind of visual tiny text perhaps.

Start my book journey here.


chapter one


chapter two

 So mapping… What do you think? Any mileage in this idea? (Sorry lots of bad puns possible around maps.)

I’d be really interested in seeing any mapping experiments you might make as a way to sort out a text.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.



  • FOI is a Freedom of Information request.
  • Jo Lowrey map is from the Kellogg Museum collection

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, argument, book writing, mapping, thesis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to mapping a text

  1. cmikhail says:

    Thanks Pat. I’m in the process of writing my thesis and I found this post in particular a joyful and helpful read as it burst into my bedroom this morning following on from some thinking I had been doing on waking up. All the best Caroline Mikhail

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. MH Thaung says:

    I think it could be very useful for visual thinkers (not me!) – and to take the analogy further, you might have to study a street map and pick the best route to your destination from a number of alternatives. Do you want to give a visitor a tour, or do you want to arrive at journey’s end quickly, maybe missing some sights on the way?


  3. Delightful, Pat. Maps fulfil us with imagination, and explaining how to break the world is paramount.


  4. Well Pat! You asked about the book or thesis as a map – about being able to map “each of the major moves, each logical step presented as a landmark. It surely ought to be possible to draw such a map.” The way forward starts with turning the book into a scroll. Then you grab some colored pencils or markers and start marking the text – and the trick is in how you mark the text. Here are some links to more on this. I hope you like what you see!
    * twitter pics:
    * twitter vids:


  5. Hi Pat, I love mapping – different types of mapping; mindmapping for notetaking, analysis and sense making. I have also used maps to try and communicate what I have learned as part of a journey. This is the link to a poster with map that I did in second year of my PhD


  6. I love the idea Pat. Wish I could hand in a thesis like that because theses are so awfully linear. I once described mine as looking like a pot scourer because there are so many interlinking bits that become disjointed in a chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph document. Perhaps what I should do is include a map at the beginning, with a number of routes illustrated, so that the examiner / reader has a choice as to which journey they wish to take. Now that could be fun!


  7. sjcolom says:

    I have a flow chart of the early sections in Marx’s German Ideology. I think it’s brilliant…I also think I might be the only one who thinks that.


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