Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Arranging Ideas in Digital Spaces

Main content start

Arranging ideas is a challenge for writers, regardless of the medium! Digital tools, however, allow instructors and students alike to re-visualize the process of arrangement as there are a number of programs available that can help students create outlines, mind maps, timelines, and other tools to help them see how their ideas fit together. This page offers some suggested approaches for helping students re-think the arrangement of their ideas in digital spaces.

Digital Arrangement Strategies

Ask the student to reverse outline their work, using the commenting tools in their word processing or presentation creation programs. 

In the exercise of re-tracing their steps and having to name what is it that they’ve put down so far, students can get away from the details of what is in each section and can think more about the larger framework and organization of the piece. You could have a student complete this reverse outline by writing a note about the main idea of each section by creating a comment bubble in programs like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Microsoft PowerPoint, or Google Slides.

Ask the student to view their work in the “outline” view of their digital presentation or document. 

In both Microsoft Word and Microsoft PowerPoint, users have the option to move between different visual perspectives of their work. Asking students to switch to a new view, particularly the “outline” view, helps them to see which pieces of information they’re privileging over other pieces. By seeing which ideas have appeared first or in different parts of the paragraph, students have the opportunity to re-visit the arrangement of their ideas.

Encourage students to re-visualize their work in an entirely new form by creating a mind map. 

Take out a pad of paper, turn to the whiteboard, or pull up a mind mapping program on the computer and get your student thinking spatially about their ideas. Often, mixing up the visual form of the paper can help students re-think their ideas and return to their paper or presentation with fresh eyes. Regardless of what media you choose to get your student mind mapping, check in with your student and see which of these media would work best for them in re-thinking their ideas. You’ll want to be sure to weigh the various affordances and limitations of the media you choose. For example, you can explain that using a pad of paper or the whiteboard may be faster to get started, but it is ephemeral in form and could be easily lost or could be limiting in terms of the space available. On the other hand, getting into a digital mind map may be slow to begin with and may provide some initial technical hurdles that could disrupt the pacing of the activity. However, it is also easily stored and shared and may allow students to more easily continue the work at home and to archive their thinking.

Return to the students’ source material and help the student parse out the major ideas in the sources and where they might go. 

A student have a sense of the general arc of their presentation or paper. However, the student may be struggling to integrate source material in the most appropriate places. You might encourage the student to make a list of their sources and to try and develop a few keywords that summarize how and where the source material intersects with their arguments. Some digital source organization tools may give your student an opportunity to visualize their sources differently, adding tags to sources or organizing them into new categories to help them cluster their ideas from sources more effectively.

Suggested Tools for Mind Mapping


Want to have students use "sticky notes" to organize and arrange their research ideas? With Jamboard, students can generate digital "sticky notes" in several different colors to simulate the experience of using paper sticky notes. On the sticky notes, users are limited to a small number of characters (to simulate the limited space of a paper sticky note) and can drag and drop the sticky notes across the screen to re-arrange and organize ideas. The final product of placing the sticky notes on the digital space can be exported as a PDF file and is automatically saved within a user's Google Drive account.


A program for creating both mind maps and flow charts, LucidCharts offers users the opportunity to create their own maps from scratch or work within a template. Some students might like the option, for example, of using a pre-made hierarchy; others might enjoy the freedom of creating their own. Plus, LucidChart can also be used as a Google application, which means that charts can be saved to students’ Google Drive accounts (a nice feature for students who are already using Google Drive for cloud storage purposes).

Students can start creating a mind map in almost immediately without needing to set up a user account! is a fairly bare bones mind mapping tool – it only allows users to create bubble maps – but maps can be easily saved as an image file and, if users would like to create an account, it can be created using Google Drive.


Unlike LucidChart or, Coggle allows users to create “spider webs” instead of mind maps. The end result winds up looking more like a network of winding paths than like connected boxes or bubbles. This approach may work well for writers who are not quite ready to put their ideas into categories and, instead, just want to see how particular thoughts connect.


In PearlTrees, students can create curated collections of source material. Rather than viewing sources in a long and linear list, PearlTrees allows students to view their sources more visually; when uploaded, appears as a square block that can be dragged to different places on the page. Students also have the ability to add in text “blocks” to separate out their soruces so that they can narrativize the way that they’re organizing the conversations between their sources. Soruce material can be uploaded in the forms of PDFs, Word documents, or Web links.


A link manager, Papaly allows users to organize any Web sources (including links to PDFs from scholarly journals) in the form of visual blocks. Rather than viewing sources in a long and linear list, Papaly users can create categories and sub-categories in which to organize their links (for example, students might create a category for links about “Writing Tutor Pedagogy,” and a sub-category might be “Strategies for Managing Time” and/or “Strategies for Giving Sentence-Level Feedback.”).

Suggested Tools for Citation Management


Zotero is a popular citation management tool for academics. An open source and free program, Zotero allows users to generate reference lists by entering in the publication information for individual sources. While users need to enter in the citations manually, Zotero will generate automatic Works Cited/References lists in a variety of academic styles. Users can also add both tags to Zotero entries, so that users wanting to organize and search for particular sources by keywords can do so.


Mendeley is another popular citation management tool for academics. Its functionality is more similar than different to Zotero’s; the main difference is that users can annotate and highlight source material inside the Mendeley interface (this is not possible in Zotero).