Hurrah for the Index Card!

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If I were to make a list of the 10 greatest inventions of human history, index cards would be right there along with the alphabet and the stuff you put on the back of your pet’s neck to kill fleas.

I don’t know how I’d get along with out them.

Not counting their other household applications, index cards are the mainstay of my writing projects.

Writing about language
I keep a stack of index cards by my chair to make notes of language peculiarities I encounter in my reading or TV watching. This is a more useful method of note-taking than my former practice of recording such notes on the backs of envelopes or even in a dedicated notebook. The cards can then be separated into categories such as grammar, vocabulary, and the like.

Novel planning
I hate to outline, but I have learned that writing a novel requires outlining–if not at the beginning, then at some point down the line. Using index cards makes the process more pleasant.

Once you have your plot in mind, deal yourself a deck of index cards equal to the number of chapters. Using one card for each chapter, write a one sentence description of what happens in the chapter. As your novel progresses, you will almost certainly want to add or to rearrange chapters. Having your outline on index cards makes rearranging easy.

Another set of cards can help you keep the characters and their identifying tags straight. You don’t want to give Bruce Bigpecs piercing blue eyes in Chapter One and smouldering black eyes in Chapter Twenty.

Something I hate more than outlining is keeping track of important records. I should have known better, but when I began acquiring WordPress accounts and GoDaddy domains, and doing things on line that require usernames and passwords, I wrote the information down in a little notebook next to my computer. Now it’s a big deal to find a password or an ID. This stuff is going onto index cards.

Plenty of computer programs exist for doing the kinds of things I’ve described here, but the fact remains that some of us require tactile re-enforcement.

It’s a psychological delight to be able to hold the stack of chapter cards in your hand and visualize the wonderful novel that is to come of them. And when the computer program crashes or is lost, that box of cards is still going to be there.

Low-tech or not, the index card belongs in every writer’s toolbox.

NOTE: We can thank American librarian and efficiency freak Melvil Dewey for the modern cardstock index card. Christened “Melville,” he dropped the “inefficient” letters. He experimented with spelling his surname “Dui,” but apparently that was too exotic to be practical.

Here’s a writer who shares my addiction to index cards:
Lela Davidson’s tribute to the index card

And here’s a brief bio of Melvil Dewey.

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10 thoughts on “Hurrah for the Index Card!”

  1. I whole-heartedly shout a cheer for the index card as well. I carry index cards in my shirt pocket. I keep stacks of them handy in places where I sit and think. They have many uses and I have used them well for years.

  2. I also like card programs (my fav: the old version of Cuecards, available for free download). I used to assemble notes like yours also in notebooks, on stacks of paper and in word-files.
    What I like in the card-programs is that they are searchable throughout. And you can easily make new categories and shuffle content around. And you can export to html (at least in Cuecards), which is great for backups or for accessing your notes-file from any computer.
    I work with both. Notes like yours on language I throw into one cuecard file. I have categories for real names I came across that might be interesting for a character, or descriptions I cut from a story but could maybe use somewhere else, etc. All that stuff that gets lost in the tons of files we have in our computers.
    On real cards (paper) I do outlines. I love working with the cardboard, shuffling the cards.
    What is also good: using very big post-its on a big piece of paper tacked to a door or the wall. You can tack it on, draw arrows and scribble notes, make a photo (or take notes), then redo. I like for this that you can show connections between cards, that’s hard to do in a program or with the single cards.

  3. Let me add my praise and cheers for the index card. I use them for all the ways mentioned above. Index cards make a great address book too.

    Ten years ago I moved, and my beloved address book, which I’d carefully nurtured for more than 25 years, ended up in storage. Panic! It was going to be a long time before I could get to it again.
    I didn’t have the heart to start a new address book, so I reassembled my address book on index cards in a file box.

    Oh boy! Index cards gave me all this extra room for additional information. Address and phone number are good, but how about birthdays and anniversaries, or the dog’s name, and the neighbors’ names and phone numbers, or the pastor.

    With the advent of fax machines, cells phones, websites and email addresses, the average address book isn’t sufficient. But with index cards, you can change or add information so easily. I’ll never go back.

  4. Index cards are wonderful–and colored ones are even better.

    When I was teaching, we used index cards for all sorts of things, including constructing and analyzing sentences (words were written on the cards, color-coded by part of speech). We also used them as playing pieces for numerous teacher-made games.

    My husband was a secondary social studies teacher, and taught his students to use index cards to keep track of and organize notes for research papers. He also had them hand in cards with summary sentences for newspaper or magazine articles that were required reading for current events. Writing an index card’s-worth of information didn’t seem as daunting as writing on a larger sheet of paper, I suppose, for the less verbal students; and those who tended to write too much were forced to summarize.

    Deborah, I have also adopted index cards in place of an address book. Now, if I’d only remember to update immediately when I get new information!

  5. Yes, I do love the index card too. But M, my dear, you simply MUST keep your passwords at the ready in an Excel file. (It’s possible I adore Excel even more than index cards.)

    Another handy use: studying for big exams. I passed all parts of the CPA exam on the first attempt thanks in part to a thick stack of colored index cards! I kept them on a ring with me at all times and used every available moment to memorize tax law and accounting mnuemonics! SUPER fun.

  6. But M, my dear, you simply MUST keep your passwords at the ready in an Excel file.

    Why not just keep them in your browser’s password file!? – you don’t even need to type them! (Of course, put a password on that, and just memorize that one)

  7. There’s an interesting history behind index cards, too. This site
    gives it as well as some suggestions on how to use index cards. They have an index card ‘stand’ that looks useful, too.

    I got hooked on using index cards after reading Jessica Hagy’s website “Indexed”

  8. I have tried keeping index cards on my desktop with

    AZZ Card Files software and my experience is entirely positive. 🙂

    This is a simple, free and light program for both experienced and novice computer users. You can even download different sets of user-prepared files like dictionaries and books on cars.

  9. I could not live without my index cards. They are at times even more convienent than my notebook and word processor. With the index card the flow of keeping notes is smooth and freeing.

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