In Praise of Writing on Index Cards

by Rebecca Hales.

Some writers love online writing apps, but many find simple is best. There’s much to praise about writing on the humble index card for organizing your ideas, mapping out a project, and feeling connected to the process..


Do Online Writing Apps Make Writing Easier?

These days, you’ll find online tools for writers that address any issue you might have: a software to help you plot your novel or memoir, a world-building program that lets you map out an entire invented fictional setting, and apps that allow you to plan, outline, and write out every step of your book chapters in one place and then collect the meta-data.

Academic writers can plug a few details into a citation generator, and it spits out perfectly formatted references for APA, MLA, and Chicago Manual of Style. Wordsmiths can throw some lines or lyrics into an online translation app, and they’re spun into an all-new system of literary connective tissue that can be turned into a poem.

For some writers, these tools are exactly what they’ve been looking for, and using one or several at the same time can make writing easier and be a true lifesaver.

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spiral notebook with pen and writing

 

Simplicity in Writing Is Best

For other writers, digital aids are not always the best. First, there’s the expense, which after the free trial ends, can be high, and second, there may be some cognitive dissonance such that that when it comes to words, ideas, and writing, processing them and making meaning from them is an elemental process, something of the body.

Writing long hand is very good for the writer and even better for your writing. It’s meditative, invites retention, and allows your cognitive process to unfold naturally. This distinctly human act wants a tool that meets writers self where they are physically.

Enter writing on the index card.

hand written recipes on white cards

In Praise of the Index Card

Available at the dollar, drug, or stationary store, this solution is firmly and unapologetically analogue. I love a good index card. Maybe it goes back to my childhood love of crafts. Or nostalgia over the recipe box I inherited from my grandmother, each card filled with her tight square script. I’ve cherished index cards for as long as I remember as keepers and deliverers of ideas. And I’ve come to rely on them as a fundamental tool of my trade.

A lot of other writers do, too.

  • Index cards are an old tool used by the likes of Vladmir Nabokov (and probably at least one of your neighbors secretly plotting out a murder mystery behind closed doors)
  • They’re a well-loved tool, whose virtue of simplicity is extolled by many practitioners and teachers of the craft
  • They’re a famous tool, still considered common practice by innumerable household names in the literary and film community (check out the photo below of the writers of several Marvel movies- with a budget like that, you’d think they’d go digital, but index cards win again!).

film writers plot movie on whiteboard

Why Modern Writers Still Choose Cards

Anne Lamott, author of the excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird, devotes a whole chapter to them, an almost love letter to writing on the index card. The way she carefully folds a card in half and puts it in her back pocket to be able to capture new ideas when she’s out or document moments she wants to remember makes the rest of us feel that a return (or a remain if you never left) to the simplicity of the small white card stock is refreshing, noble.

[Yet another reason among the thousands that book is considered a staple among writers.]

 

Where Writing Long Hand Wins Out Over Digital Ease

The truth is, it makes a difference to write our story ideas longhand for a few reasons.

  1. We can analyze our stories better when we see them up on the wall. You can also further decorate them by color coding, doodling small pictures, or writing additional notes on more cards that you can pin up to create off-shoot storylines, all of which keeps the eye (and your brain) engaged.
  2. They can be moved around until the plot totally is worked out. And then moved again when that same plot falls apart. Most people’s brains do not work linearly, which means you may have written out your plot a-b-d-c without realizing it. Once you put the a, b, d, and c on separate cards and pin them to the wall, however, you can easily see that they should be rearranged into a better, more linear order.
  3. Index cards are cleaner (and more sanitary) than used napkins (sorry, Picasso) and the backs of receipts, which complicates things at tax time.line drawing of dove
  4. The physical act of writing keeps a writer grounded to their ideas. Writing allows you to fully embody your practice while maintaining a tether to your physical self. It’s a way of reminding us, as writers, not to live so much in our heads. To instead, take part of the world in our hands and mark it as our own.

While there are online index card apps such as Notedex, Index Card Ink, or one even I have been known to use called Cardflow, bringing the best of both worlds into a virtual setting, the real thing usually wins out over all else.

Index cards are fantastic for organizing your ideas, mapping out a project, and feeling connected to your writing process, which ultimately makes writing that much more satisfying.

Whatever genre you write, or however your process, consider the clean smooth potential of a card, grab your favorite pencil or pen, and lined or unlined, color or white, enjoy seeing your ideas as you write them into life.

Then pin them to the wall.


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