Student Note-Taking: Level Up Your Essay Writing

Follow this real life example of how students can write their essays much easier and faster with Scrintal, a free tool used by top students and visual thinkers.

Screenshot of an Essay planned in Scrintal.

Introduction | A Student’s Perspective

As an undergraduate student with a minor in the social sciences, I’ve written my fair share of essays. I see the value in outlining, but the way I’ve learned to do it in school forces me to compartmentalize my thoughts into strict categories, and it’s harder to make connections between points without filling up the margins with messy written notes or adding asterisks and typing footnotes. Without these visual reminders, my head is swimming with ideas and it’s difficult to focus on the topic at hand.  

Even in cases where I’m writing an essay about which I’m not bursting with ideas, sitting in front of a blank document with nowhere to start is a daunting feeling that doesn’t inspire creativity or ideation. I’ve often been known to fill up a flashcard full of keywords and phrases that relate to my essay topic and can be referred to while I write.

But there’s a better solution now. 

Planning | How To Plan Essay Writing With Scrintal 

Before Scrintal, my essay-writing process depended on the length and topic of the paper. I would start with reading the source material, usually consisting of one or many philosophy papers that varied in complexity from op-eds to intricate and meandering textbook chapters. 

Hume and Marx were always easy reads if you could pay attention, and to write a thousand-word paper on them would be a breeze. I would start with a cheeky first sentence and from there I could write in an ordered fashion and edit along the way. A final read-through before submitting and I was done; these essays received good marks, because they started with a single source, relied on a single thesis statement, and referenced materials that were concise, well-organized, and simple to understand. 

Kierkegaard and Heidegger, on the other hand, were more complex. After a lot of Googling questions, skimming Wikipedia, and taking breaks from reading to lean back in my chair and ponder the last sentence, I could grasp the basic concept of a difficult paper. But explaining it in full, much less writing an original paper, was a whole different story. I struggled through these and made it out the other side, but it was inefficient and sometimes uninspired; I would feel like all the ideas I came up with while reading had been lost along the way in my quest to understand the next sentence, and the one after that, and the one after that. 

Scrintal changed that: I’ve written two essays using Scrintal, one being a relatively short paper that required comparing two sources and another ten-pager for which I referenced three lengthy academic articles and one 400-page book. 

How To Plan Essay Writing With Scrintal.

For the comparison paper, I wrote notes on Scrintal as I read and highlighted in OneNote, creating connecting cards about similar ideas between the two papers as well as counterarguments. I only had to read each paper one time to articulate my ideas, and I didn’t have to write in the OneNote margins to explain my highlights; I only highlighted so I could remember which sentences to quote. This significantly cut down my ideation time and ensured I didn’t have to reread material, the latter of which always used to make me feel too entrenched in the source to be able to step back and write about it in my own words.

For the second ten-page essay, I read through sources and added notecards to denote different ideas, easily connecting them to one other by linking cards. I added quotes directly from sources into my notecards and each notecard represented a different argument in support of my thesis. Because the paper was longer and more complex, I did return to my sources to verify that the points I made were correctly described; but rather than verifying my entire paper sentence by sentence, I was able to parse through notecards and make connections as they appeared, ensuring that my spontaneous ideas were not lost along the way. 

Since the writing of these essays, a new Scrintal update also allows the user to link to an online PDF file in their notecard and open the document in a new window alongside their notecard, which makes the process of writing while reading even easier. You can also do this with YouTube videos to listen and type at the same time. A great feature to add would be the ability to upload PDFs and other documents as well as videos (like downloadable lecture videos from online classes) with the same results rather than having to link PDFs available from online sources.

You can also now tag notecards or change their color, which I would have used to differentiate cards based on whether they represent ideas, arguments, or entire reference summaries. These tools will definitely come into play in my future uses.

Tags and colors used on the cards to plan essays in Scrintal.

Based on my experience, my favorite Scrintal planning features are as follows:

  • Flexibility of creating and marking notecards for different essay components
  • Ability to easily connect ideas between cards in order to remember where they are relevant
  • Search function, which allows me to clear my desk of cards that are not immediately needed and bring them back as required
  • Ability to open documents and videos in a separate window within the Scrintal ecosystem to avoid switching between different tabs
  • Folding and expanding cards to see the big picture of a paper and ensure everything I need to address is included in my ideas

Ideation in essay writing is the most difficult part for me. Once I know what I need to write about, the writing itself is easy; and the flow of writing is much smoother when it’s not interrupted by having to think about where to go next. Instead, my thought process and direction are easily laid out in the connected notecards.

Writing | How To Write An Essay Using Scrintal

Before Scrintal, writing was either a putting-to-paper of my stream of consciousness or a laborious and frustrating ordeal, again depending on the length and topic of the essay. But the main function of Scrintal for essays is the planning, and once this is done, writing is as simple as adding more detail and transforming ideas into coherent, meaningful sentences. Even if I don’t know exactly the order in which I want to write a paper when I begin, I can collapse my notes all at once to see all the components of my thesis and decide which naturally comes after the one before. I was even able to copy and paste phrases directly from Scrintal into my essay with few changes; because these ideas were written while I was in the throes of reading, they were my first and best attempts at synthesizing what I had read in my own words and could function as efficient explanatory or introductory phrases in the paper itself. I would not have been able to do this if my ideas were written down after I had finished reading the whole source material, but since I wrote while I read, the ideas were fresh in my mind and well-articulated in my notecard. 

Screenshot of conclusions drawn and visualized in Scrintal.

Conclusion | The Future of Essay Writing

My experience with the early rendition of Scrintal improved my ideation, efficiency, and attitude when it came to writing essays. Having seen the new improvements in available tools and user experience, I see this continuing to be the case. Any concerns I had while completing these two essays have since been mostly resolved: namely, I no longer have to switch between tabs to write notes while reading or listening if the PDF or video is available online, nor is it necessary to have all cards in the same color or always view all cards and their content rather than the card titles alone. 

Scrintal could not have come at a better time, because I am currently in the process of writing my undergraduate thesis, an extensive term-long assignment that is largely self-directed and requires diligent documentation of ideas. While my high school education prepared me to write essays with surprise prompts under time constraints, Scrintal allows me to formulate well-researched and thoughtfully planned papers with ease. I can choose when to focus on an idea and when to step back and see the progress of my research. I can decide when to clear my desk and when to bring everything back into the picture. I can easily explore a new idea and the substance behind it, even deleting it or moving the information to an existing card if needed. The team behind this tool values user feedback and has implemented it faster than any other company I have seen; so I have no doubt that any potential improvements will make it to my desk and further enhance my experience. 

The future of my writing is Scrintal, and I’m not going back.

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