Over the past few years, while initiating two personal non-fiction projects each running hundreds of pages in length, I found myself struggling to structure coherent wholes from the dizzying sums of the respective parts. I knew generally what I wanted to say in each case, and I had no shortage of content to work with, but in contemplating the structural expression of my ideas I became overwhelmed both by the complexity of the issues and the amount of information on hand.
Having learned to write in the pre-computer age, when every word had to be hand-chiseled into a block of marble, and having been liberated by the amazing technological advances in word processing that continue to this day, and generally being the kind of person who believes that software is a better medium for grappling with ideas than stone, I invariably tried to use computer programs to wrap my mind around each project. Unfortunately, each tool I tested proved more trouble than it was worth because visibility of the whole became obscured by the inherent limitations of the computer screen — by which I mean an old-fashioned desk-top monitor.
It’s a given today that the only thing worth holding in your hand is the latest-and-greatest smartphone, but I’m going to suggest you may want to expand your arsenal of helpful physical objects when you’re writing something that can’t be adequately communicated with your thumbs. And yes, as you undoubtedly surmised from the title of this post, I’m talking about note cards. What you may not yet realize, however, is that I really am talking about real paper note cards just like your grandparents used when they were structuring their long-form projects.
If you’ve never seen an actual note card in the wild, here’s a sample. What you’re looking at is a piece of paper decorated with ruled lines, typically measuring 3 inches high by 5 inches wide, which is why note cards are also called 3-by-5 cards. Originally invented to allow small bits of information to be organized or indexed, note cards are, shockingly, also commonly known as index cards. You may also encounter note cards in a third guise known as the recipe card, which allows favorite or family recipes to be held sacred in a small box that can be added to and passed down through the generations even after the power goes out in your dystopian neighborhood.
The sensory aspect of note cards — the ability to feel them in your hand while simultaneously mapping them with your mind — makes them exceedingly useful when turning a large amount of interconnected fragments into an orderly and often linear whole. Cut-and-paste is fine if you’re only organizing four paragraphs, but when you’re trying to coherently structure fifty, a hundred and fifty or three hundred stray thoughts, half-formed ideas and fuzzy subject headings — each of which may run several pages when fully expressed — you need some way to comprehend the whole and the parts at the same time.
Yes, you can create complex outlines and large documents in software using all kinds of snazzy features, including hyperlinking, but to do so you will find yourself scrolling endlessly and jumping around in ways that obscure context. When you have your structure and you’re ready to write that won’t be a problem, but when you’re not yet sure what goes where it’s death. Moving through a stack of note cards is as easy as flipping them back and forth, meaning you see both the whole and the individual parts at the same time. Even at large scales you can condense hundreds of cards into a single stack held in one hand while the other hand moves individual cards back and forth, creating the most logical order. If you know you want a specific subject to appear early or late the thickness of the stack provides that context. If you’re not sure where something goes but you know what it goes next to, use paperclips to organize clusters of cards that can be moved en bloc until the overall structure makes sense.
Yes, there are nifty virtual note cards, but unless your display is the size of a conference-room wall any software inevitably suffers from interface limitations of dimension and dimensionality. Graphically you can make virtual note cards look like a stack, you can display them in neat collapsible rows, you can even create animations that allow you to flip them back and forth or drag them hither and yon, but in the end you’ve got to do all that using a flat screen even if you’re displaying in 3D. At some point VR may offer a data-connected facsimile of real-world note cards but we’re not there yet, to say nothing of how crushing the cost of a rapidly obsolescent VR rig will be compared with the cheap and ageless utility of paper note cards. (You can by 100 note cards for a couple of bucks or less.)
What you need more than anything in the early stages of a long-form project is for nothing to get in the way. If your handwriting is weak — or at least weaker than your typing — you may find writing note cards laborious, but once you’ve got each card done you will reclaim that time and then some. Unfortunately, because we’ve been trained by marketing weasels to believe that there really is an app for everything (there isn’t), putting up writers’ cramp seems like self-abuse when there are buttons to click and interfaces to configure even as none of that gets the job done. Training your mind to recognize when technology is getting in the way of, rather than abetting, your goals can take a bit of a mind shift, but it’s a genuinely useful thing to do. And that’s particularly true when you may be trying to get your mind around something that’s not yet fully formed. Delays and distractions at that point may preclude success, whereas once you have everything down on note cards any interruption is just another excuse to hit the fridge.
When you need to make sense of a crush of ideas nothing is better than note cards. I am stating that as an objective, categorical, in-your-face, unapologetic fact. When you’re trying to do what note cards have done best for hundreds of years, no amount of computerization will produce better results because your own human interface is better at interfacing with the CPU in your head than anything yet devised. Computers may be better at word processing, they may be better at document publishing, they may be better at networking both social and systemic, but at the genesis of a complex work computers often get in the way precisely because there’s nothing to compute.
Next up: how to secure your note cards for travel.
— Mark Barrett
Scott Richards says
So true, thank you for the reality check. I remember in college sorting through my 3 x 5’s and putting papers together. Of course the most advanced technology available at that time was an electric typewriter. Our campus computer (Fortran) used the computer cards that had to be put in the proper order. Many times the air turned blue when a student dropped their stack of cards!