Mapping thoughts with Scapple

When I was in college, I was finally able to break free from the “make sure you use proper outlining form for your notes if you want full credit” mind-set and find my own way to process class information. The result was a note-taking method which was unique to me, but looked the way my mind worked 1.

Essentially, my college notes are drawings of boxes, filled with ideas and connected with arrows which denoted the flow of the lecture. Nowadays we’d call it “mind-mapping,” but the form I ended up using was much more free-form than the types of mind maps you get from most software packages nowadays. That’s not a knock on mind-mapping software, which I love, it’s simply pointing out a limitation of a computerized mind-map. Computers are all about logic 2, and logic depends on having a well-defined structure. This is something at which most mind-map apps really excel – they brilliantly and quickly create a hierarchy of structure in order to map an idea. I use such maps often, particularly iThoughts on iOS and OS X.

Mind-maps, however, aren’t great at dealing with a free-form flow. Going back later to connect ideas which did not appear near each other in a lecture, for example, is hard to do in a typical mind-map app – especially if the connection is one the user makes, thus breaking it completely out of the logical structure created by the map.

Structured maps also aren’t great at creating “asides” which contain personal reflections, or thoughts which the user wants to go back and explore at a later time. These, after all, need to show up as being only semi-connected to the structure of the map.

In fact, I’d never found a piece of software which allowed me to create a completely free-form note-map on a computer which was as easy as paper 3. Though, as you can see by the image to the right, I have tried my note-taking method using various paper-simulation apps and a stylus.

Note map created with Notability
A pen and paper simulation on a tablet is nice, but just not the same.

This week, however, I picked up a piece of software which finally works the way my mind thinks. On the surface it works like many mind-mapping applications, but in reality, it’s completely free form. I was so excited as I explored it’s capabilities I almost wanted to go out and sign up for a community college course, just so I could try it out while taking notes 4.

Scapple is the name of this brilliant piece of software. Created, in fact, by Literature and Latte – the same company which develops the greatest writing application ever, Scrivener.

In Scrapple, unless ideas are specifically bound together in a background shape, each idea is considered independent every other idea on the canvas. Ideas can be dragged on top of each other, however, and modifier keys will either create arrows in various directions or dotted lines 5. Unlike a typical mind-map, however, these links are visual only. The structure of the document is bound only by the imagination of the user. I’ve included an image of a test map which I created in Scapple 6. As is apparent in the example, images are also able to be dragged on to the map and connected just like any other node.

scrapple map example
When printed without the “shrink to fit” option enabled, this map would take up 9 sheets of of paper.

One interesting aspect of a Scapple map is the notion of the “page.” Interesting because it’s actually non-existent. A Scapple expands expands as nodes are placed near its edges. The larger the map, then, the larger the “page-size” will be in an exported PDF or image file. While the application does possess an page-setup dialog, it seems to apply only to a document when it is printed. I’ve yet to explore how much I can get the map canvas to expand, but I can image an hour lecture would have to get rather large.

You might want to give Scapple a try if you are looking for a free form note taking application. It’s both simple to use and flexible. Even though it could benefit from a touch-centric companion app for tablets, I foresee this becoming one of the most frequently used applications on my Macbook.


  1. It also drove anyone who borrowed my notes a bit bonkers. Looking too deep into my psyche is probably a bad idea. 
  2. Yes, scoffers, they are. 
  3. Applications like Notability, are really simulations of a pen & paper experience – the one’s I’ve used are close, but don’t quite hit the mark. At the same time I wouldn’t mind taking an active stylus, or even a Surface, to a lecture sometime just to test it out. 
  4. Yes, I am a nerd. You must have figured this out by now. 
  5. These can also be created by double-clicking with the same modifier keys to automatically create links. Once I remember which key does what the process will be wonderfully fast. 
  6. Being from Philadelphia, I keep on wanting to call this app “scrapple.” 

3 Comments

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  1. I take notes similar to this, not so boxy, but with outlying words and ideas and lots of arrows. I don’t know if I could accomplish the same effect on a computer without a lot of practice; it would take too much thought process to take the notes,I would miss some of the lecture content.
    I would, however, have to call the program “scrapple “!!!!! 😜

    • Yah, one of the reasons I love iThoughts for mind-mapping is because it’s pretty much brainless to create the different nodes of thought. Scapple has three keystrokes which need to be memorized, but other than that is pretty similarly brainless – but I’d need to test it out in a class to see if it holds up.

  2. Notability works well for. I am so glad you did it for me.

    Sent from my iPad

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