Another Essential Writing Tool You Should Own in Large Quantities

Be it ever so humble, the index card is pure magic

When I recently sang the praises of the humble reporter’s notebook and Pilot retractable pen, I should have noted that these formed the tool kit for the research phase of writing. When time comes for me to sit down and actually compose a story, there is another essential (and equally unassuming) piece of equipment that I couldn’t work without: the 5x8 index card.

I almost hold my breath as I write this, because every now and then I imagine a world in which index cards would no longer be produced, and I would be bereft. Because seriously, what on earth are they used for anymore (besides by writers organizing their notes)? In the ancient past, index cards were the mainstay of everyone’s mother’s recipe box (at least the small 3x5 ones were). I seem to also remember using them in junior high and high school, although I can’t even remember how I used them back then, although I think it had something to do with studying. Index cards seem to exist in some prehistoric supply closet that also contains Rolodex refills and typewriter ribbons. These days? I have no idea.

But thank goodness index cards still exist (and are available all over the place, including here) since they are indispensable to me. After I’ve done all my reporting on a story, I print out my notes and highlight the salient bits, and then I transfer those bits onto individual index cards. Eventually, all the tastiest morsels of my reporting are written on cards. Then I take those cards and spread them out and move them around like chess pieces until they begin to have some order and logic and harmony. The amount of material you can fit on a card is somehow exactly the right amount — they are about the size of a fully-formed idea. An 8 1/2 x 11 page of notes is too much to keep in your head at one time and doesn’t lend itself to being moved around to find the structure for a story. An index card, though, is perfect.

I use a lot of index cards. For The Library Book, I had more than 700 index cards of material. The book was 308 pages long, which leads me to think that an index card has between a third and a half a page’s worth of information on it. (This is the roughest estimate — some cards have one single line that I want to be sure to use; others have lots of details about one particular thing or person). I buy them in packs of 100, and the more worried I am about their possible obsolescence, the more I buy.

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own book club (join me!)

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