By Glen C. Strathy
Writers were using index cards long before personal computers came into being. While to some extent they have been replaced today by high-tech devices such as blackberries and cellphones, they remain an excellent, inexpensive, and convenient tool for writers to have in their arsenal.
In the first place, these 3x5 inch paper cards are a handy note-taking device. You can keep a small deck of them in your pocket or purse, along with a pencil or pen. Wherever you are, you can jot down an idea on an index card. You can also use them to record information you research in books and articles. Put a brief note as to the source in the top right-hand corner (for instance, the author's name or the title of the book you are looking at, and the page number. Keep a separate list of your sources, along with full bibliographic information (author, title, year, publisher, etc.) Or you can record the bibliographic details on the back of the card. On the front of the card, write the topic in the top left-hand corner, and the information below.
Index cards work without batteries and outside the range of cellphones, so you can use them even in the most remote corners of the globe. Unlike notes stored on a computer or other electronic device, a stack of cards on your shelf is visible and therefore easier to find and less likely to be forgotten.
Yes, you could use a notebook to record ideas and information instead (another old-fashioned but still effective tool). But cards have the added advantage of being unbound.
For instance, let's say you're planning to write a non-fiction book and you have each of your ideas and each bit of information written out on a separate card. You will find it very easy to group the cards into topics. Once you have a stack of cards for each topic, you can arrange all your ideas and bits of information in the order they will appear in the book. You can't do that with notebook pages. And sorting index cards is much easier and faster than cutting and pasting notes in a computer file.
Index cards are also great tools for recording your ideas when you're writing fiction.
You can keep a small stack of cards in your pocket or purse. Whenever you have an idea for a story or a character, you can jot it down on an index card. Store all these ideas in a card file in your home office and use them whenever you are looking for a story idea.
Again, the great thing about index cards is that, once your card file is filled with more ideas than you will ever use, you can weed through your collection, tossing out the ideas you realize are not as interesting.
However, the most powerful use of index cards is in plotting longer works, such as novels.
You can put a short description of each scene or event in your novel onto a
card and then experiment with rearranging the cards until you have the
right order. You can easily insert a new card/scene into the sequence
if you realize it's needed, or take out scenes that no longer work. In this way, you can work out your entire plot before you start writing.
Index cards work really well if you have a number of subplots or throughlines. You can buy cards of different colours and use one colour for each throughline (or make your own by putting coloured dots in the cards. You can work out the sequence of events for each throughline separately, and then combine them into one complete sequence for your novel.
Another technique (for those plotters who love visual aids) is to lay all y our cards out on a table or floor, or stick them onto a bulletin board (using tacks or magnets). This lets you see the entire sequence at a glance. You can separate the various throughlines and subplots if you wish, making a separate row for each one. (You can also use sticky notes instead of cards for this, but they aren't as durable and will lose their stickiness over time).
If you have one of those magnetic white boards, the final step is to draw arrows from one card to the next, making order of all your events perfectly clear.
For more tips on using index cards, see "How to Write a Synopsis"