Index Cards – They Never Go Out of Style

Long ago, probably when I was in middle school (so, around 12 years old), my teachers introduced me to the power of index cards. Whenever I was researching for a paper or studying for an exam, the process started by taking notes on index cards. Each card would have its own fact and source. At the end of the research process, I’d draft an outline for what I wanted to write, then lay out all my index cards in the order I needed to make and support my arguments.

At its highest level, the outline followed the “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Introduction, Detail, Conclusion. Those index cards saved me a lot of time in the writing part of the process because I had noted precisely where the fact came from, so I could go straight back to the source if I needed more information. I could create a footnote citing the original source with ease. Research came first, then analysis, and usually, the conclusions were pretty obvious and backed up with lots of little cards to point the way.

It sounds like a crazy amount of work up front, but it’s a great way to organize material. I have no idea if people are taught this way anymore, but I’ve found reason to come back to it as a developmental editor and technical writer for my clients. I don’t use physical index cards anymore, but the concept still applies when using online whiteboard tools like Miro.

One of my clients suffers from the issue of having too much experience in their subject matter area. This sounds like an excellent problem to have until you’re trying to make a point that is backed up by neutral, third-party data, but all you have is someone’s personal assertion that “this is my experience, so I know it to be true.” They know what they think the conclusions should be, so for them, it’s a question of finding information to back up their ideas. In one way, it’s like having a hypothesis and then looking to see if the data backs up that idea, so this isn’t entirely wrong, but it does make for some interesting challenges when trying to write a paper.

In this case, I created two virtual whiteboards. The first included sticky notes that named all the source material on one side and the findings, presumably derived from that material, in larger boxes next to them. The second included more sticky notes that named all the findings found on the first whiteboard and all the conclusions in larger boxes next to them. I presented these whiteboards to the client during a call and said, “let’s map this out – take each sticky note and drop it on whatever finding or conclusion it’s intended to support.” The sticky notes can go in multiple boxes, and at the end of the exercise, every finding must have at least one source material sticky note, and every conclusion must have at least one finding.

The nice thing about this is that it takes all the debate about the text up a level. It’s not about arguing as to whether anything is correct or not (though we’ll certainly get to that), it’s about whether the assertions can be backed up at all.  Trying to do that when everything is in a 50-page wall of text is really hard. Making it visual helps the client see the gaps and helps me as the writer get a better sense of what the client is thinking as they make their arguments.

I hope you found this helpful! Let me know in the comments if you’d like more tips like this one as part of my blog.

Featured Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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