Thoughts on Using Index Cards

A.B. England recently concluded a three-part series on writing methods called, “Searching for a Method to Madness.” The essays were thought provoking and inspiring. Here are links to all three parts: 1, 2,3.


Image credit: Matthieu (flickr)

Reading her series, I found myself examining my own technique and I realized I’d actually fallen into something of a method that involves the use of index cards. At the moment, I am using virtual index cards in the writing program Scrivener but I also use the old fashioned 3×5 paper sort too. I also use other little scraps of paper where I can.

While may sound like a novel-by-gerbil method of writing I’m certainly not the first. For example, the novelist in Kurt Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus claimed to have written an entire book on bits of found paper. Vladimir Nabokov also used index cards to write his novels. I remember reading someplace that he would scribble cards while his wife drove on long automobile trips. I’m not sure if I could do that. I suppose not having two screaming kids in the back seat would be help. :)

In any case, here are a few lessons I’ve learned about index cards:

1. Be Clear – Nothing is worse than finding a card in your stack that says “remember that thing” or “add dialogue from today’s conversation”. Even though you were in a hurry and swore you’d remember the details, I guarantee that you will not and you will bang your head on the table when you find cards like this in the stack.

2. Be Concise – Putting complete sentences on an index card may feel like a path to clarity, but in the confined space of the card you end up taking card after card and invariably one will get lost and become “remember this thing.”

3. Think Non-Linear – The benefit of using index cards is that you can shuffle and reorder them with ease. However, if you have constructed your thoughts in such a way that one MUST lead to the next, you’re missing out on the interesting possibilities that occur when you suddenly shake up the stream of your narrative.

I have a few more thoughts about index cards that I’ll share in future posts, but I’d love to hear about your experience.

17 thoughts on “Thoughts on Using Index Cards

  1. I’ve heard of using index cards for organizing your writing, and I’m seriously thinking of trying it out. I usually carry a steno notebook around with me, but the idea of having something really compact that I can shove in my pockets is appealing. And I can see it working just as well for nonfiction as it does for fiction—I could definitely see outlining articles and blog posts, jotting down facts and sources, quotes, that kind of thing as being really helpful.

    Colleen Vanderlinden’s last blog post..Wordless Wednesday: Strawberry Anticipation

  2. I had used index cards quite a while back, for character information as it came to me, (one character per card) settings etc, and had them actually filed in a recipe box… Story recipes, in a way. Occasionally a scene or situation would come to mind and I would rough it out and file it in the proper category. Each card would be mostly a stand-alone, to be used when I needed that particular character, attribute or scenario.

    Wish I could find one particular story… Hmms, rewrite time methinks.

    I must check out Scrivener.

    Thanks :) -You also reminded me of habits and stories that should be resurrected.

  3. @Colleen You might like the Hipster PDA. This is how I carry my cards around.

    @Isle Glad I could jog your memory! I have a recipe box too but I often have the cards just stacked on the desk. I like looking at them that way. Frankly, most of the stories are better as decorations (Décor de Auteur).

  4. Ok, I admit to also testing commentluv

    That’s ok. I admit to pretending to be a writer. At least you are being productive! :)

  5. I put my goals on index cards because they’re easy to carry around and review. I am also completely addicted to post-it-notes. Seriously. I put quotes, ideas, musings, to do’s on post its. I then stick many of them in my journal. It’s almost like a little rebellion. I’m really neat and the post it notes are a little out of control. :-)

    Karen Swim’s last blog post..Be Unstoppable!

  6. @Ulla Mindmapping software is really cool. I know two writers who swear by it My experience though has not quite been the same, as I merely end up swearing at it. That said, mindmeister does look pretty sweet. I’m always willing to try new web toys!

    P.S. Entschuldigung für die verzögerung in diesem beitrag. Ihre nachricht wurde in den Spam-Filter gefunden. Tschuss! ;)

  7. @Karen At work, I do this “office supply art.” Post-it Note Theater is my favorite. I use the post-its as panels and stick them all together in crazy formations… Well, I have to do something during those long meetings! :)

    How many different colors/sizes do you use? When I go to Staples… on second thought, I’m not allowed to go to Staples anymore because of what happened the last time. Mmmm. Post-its.

  8. @Jamie, okay now I’m really outing myself, LOL! I have them in mutliple colors. I have the little tiny ones, the large lined ones, the ones with funny sayings and pretty pictures and yes even the flags…and I use them all. In fact, I have an office supply closet in my home and people have been known to routinely come and “shop”in my closet. What can I say have a thing for paper and pens. :-)

    Karen Swim’s last blog post..Be Unstoppable!

  9. Ha! I should come and make some little drawings for you!! :)

    Does your office look like this one?

  10. I’ve always been a pocket Moleskine man for my thoughts, but I’ve heard time and again of the index card idea. As obvious as it is, I never thought about the fact that you can shuffle them. That’s something you can’t do with a Moleskine.

    Perhaps I could be persuaded to index cards after all :)

    Edward Atkinson’s last blog post..Happy Monday!

  11. Great post. I’ve been using index cards since reading Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird about 7 years ago. I keep a stash of them everywhere. You never know when you’ll need them.

    I also use them as bookmarks. It’s great to have a little spot to write ideas, and the size is perfect for short concise text or bullet points.

    I do use notebooks for longer projects like articles and blog posts, but the majority of my new ideas are on 3″ x 5″ index cards.

  12. @Edward The first time I shuffled my cards, I knew I’d hit on something special. I love working with text out of sequence. So many cool things result… By the way, I also used a pocket Moleskine for a long time and then switched to the next size up. I use it more for sketching than writing, though sometimes I’m surprised what I find between the covers.

    @Pamela Anne’s book was a big inspiration for me too. Did you ever buy a one-inch picture frame? I really looked at the world differently after I read that book. Based on what you wrote about working on long projects, I’d bet you’d like Scrivener (if you have a Mac).

    P.S. I love your post on writer’s block!

  13. Jamie,

    No, I never bought a one-inch picture frame. =( That book makes me laugh and cry. It also makes me feel great about wanting to be a writer. I bought it only because I liked the bird by bird story on the back cover. I had never heard of Anne Lamott before picking it up. I was instantly hooked. Whenever I need inspiration, I remember “It smells like moon”, and I have an easier time getting back on track. And the libel parts crack me up. I can’t read it without laughing out loud.

    Thanks for reading my blog. I like that post too. It seems to be my biggest hit. I’ll find my blogging stride one day.

    I don’t have a Mac yet (that will happen one day too), but I’ll look up Scrivener anyway. It sounds interesting.

    Pamela Weir’s last blog post..Email Marketing, the right way…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>