Researching a topic using Scrintal


This article is the first in a short series on using Scrintal to approach different types of work. The methods given here are suggestions only; others might have a different (and quite possibly better) approach. One of the best things about Scrintal is that you can do it your way.

If you don’t yet know what Scrintal is, please see this article for an introduction.

Exploring a topic

Researching a topic (at least at the beginning) is an example of a top-down approach, where you start with one central item (the topic) and then explore outwards from there. Typically, you might be interested in some of the following things:

  • Some definitions
  • The components of this topic (i.e. sub-topics). These might be broken down even further for a complex sub-topic.
  • Major conceptual areas that you should know about.
  • Current controversies/questions in this field.
  • A few key references (books, papers, websites etc.).
  • Major authors/commentators/personalities in this area.

You might consider this a simple hierarchical structure, where you start with the topic in the centre and add layers of subcomponents around it, each of which might have more subcomponents. In reality, though, the structure is rarely this simple. As you build your understanding, you will see other relationships emerge, and you need to be able to put these into your conceptual model somehow.

Also, when you are new to an area of interest, you might get parts of it wrong at the beginning. This is perfectly normal and helps you to learn what the subject is not about. Therefore, it is handy to use a tool that allows you to revise your understanding as you go: it’s fine to remove things or connections and replace them as you get a better insight into what is going on.

Scrintal is a perfect tool for this type of work. You can start in a relaxed and unstructured way and then add detail as you go. If this ends up being an area of interest for you, Scrintal will cope with the added complexity as you proceed.


As a practical example, I chose a big topic that I know almost nothing about - Linguistics. I gave myself a budget of 30 minutes for research, using Scrintal as I went. Since this is not a tutorial on good research methods, I stuck to Google and Google Scholar only.

My goals here were to:

  • Give me a basic understanding of what Linguistics is and what it is made up of.
  • Identify some areas which I might find personally interesting.
  • Provide me with a list of things I should look at next.

Gathering information

To start with, I created a "Linguistics" card and linked cards to each area I thought I might find information on. This might look quite different as I learn more and revise my thinking.

Starting Point
A Starting Point

Next, I started searching for information. By looking at several obvious sources, certain things will start to show up regularly. These are probably worth putting into my Scrintal board even before I understand them.

As I discover more, cards can be added wherever they seem to fit and linked as necessary. If I can’t find where to fit them, they can stay to one side: not part of the structure yet, but not ignored.

Every so often, it gets confusing whether to create a card or not. It is fine to make some notes in a parent-level card and turn them into related cards later if appropriate.

Organising the material

Once I have started collecting some information, it is now a good time to reflect on what it means and how it is related. It is also a good time to think of how I might want to use this in the future and how I will be able to find it when I do want to use it later.


Links not only show relationships but allow you to traverse your data as you interact with it. Besides direct links and backlinks, Scrintal has related links, which are links to cards that share at least one other tag. Links show the hierarchy of cards connected via each link, so you can explore how cards are related to your network of cards. You can also see links to other boards where the card also appears.

Establishing connections with links
Establishing connections


Scrintal’s infinite canvas allows you the space to move things around to make sense of them. Try making groups, columns, or lines of cards and see if you get any insight from this. As Sönke Ahrens says:

Note sequences are the clusters where order emerges from complexity. We extract information from different linear sources and mix it all up and shake it until new patterns emerge.


Links establish a hierarchy (or - more properly - a network) of connections. It is also useful to explore visual hierarchies or other groupings to understand how things fit together. Before you add links, this might be a good thing to do: you can experiment with how things might be related visually, even if it is not obvious. You won’t break anything by rearranging cards to see whether they make sense another way.


You can use card colours to convey relationships, categories, status, or anything else which makes sense to you.

Clustering, hierarchies and colour: starting to bring order out of chaos
Clustering, hierarchies and colour: starting to bring order out of chaos


If you get too many cards on the main board, you can use another board to show a detailed view of one area. This board can be accessed via a link in a card, so it is easy to navigate from one board to another.

Alternatively, you might use a board to show a different view of the same material. You might use different clustering or colours of cards to show some parts or all of your cards in a different context.

You might also have a “navigation” card on your board, which simply contains links to all related boards for this project.

Starting on a sub board
Starting on a Sub-Board


We will cover the use of tags in more detail in a later article, but a good start is to:

  • Design your tags so that they will be useful to you later on.
  • Don’t overdo it.

A starting point here is to tag objects, such as #person, #reference etc. If you want to access all this material later, you could add a topic tag - #linquistics - to all of your cards.


Tables in Scrintal can work just like Kanban Boards. You can make a column for areas or stages of your work and put cards into them. For example, “To Do”, “Draft”, “Needs Review”, etc.

A Scrintal Table
A Scrintal Table

Further work

Now that I have a basic understanding of my topic, I might wish to leave it for a while and then come back to it later to review it and do some more work. It is a good idea to have some way of leaving yourself with a reminder of what you wanted to look into next and where to start when you come back. There are different ways to approach this.

You might use tags; for example, #linguistics, #questions, #todo. If you click on a tag in Scrintal’s archive, you see a subset of tags for cards that already have the first tag. This allows you to rapidly show a subset of cards from a larger set.

If you like to keep things more visual, you could colour code cards on your board to show what is incomplete or what you want to focus on next. Or you might make another board with your just your “to do” cards. This can be organised in whatever way works for you.


Scrintal is a great tool for brainstorming and initial research on a topic. As a result, you get information and a visual representation of how things fit together. This is handy for understanding the big picture of an area of interest before exploring details.

Once you have started on this work, you can set yourself up so that you will know what to do next when you return. Since cards can contain a lot of information, Scrintal is also ideal for research, where it is common to make multiple passes over the same information and add more as you read more and learn. You can put in your own thoughts, collect documents and references and link all this together as you go.

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