The Incredible Creative Power of the Index Card
An old-school tool that rivals its digital competitors
It's just a blank little piece of paper measuring a few inches across. And yet, it may be one of the most powerful mediums ever created.
I'm talking about the index card. 4-by-6. 3-by-5. Ruled. Blank. Colored. You're probably familiar with the variations.
As unassuming as index cards are, they've managed to produce:
- the brilliant novels of Nabokov.
- the provocative documentaries of Erin Lee Carr.
- the powerful books of the strategist Robert Greene.
- the speeches of Ronald Reagan, that ended the Cold War.
- the research and theories of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann.
- the classifying and naming of all organisms and minerals by Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy.
- the Oscar-winning movies of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.
They've also been instrumental to me. In the course of my career as a writer and researcher, I've written on at least 10,000 4-by-6 inch notecards (not including daily to-do lists, which I also use them for). They've now served as the backbones for 10 books, and close to a million words of published prose.
How many hours have I spent on quiet afternoons with a stack of books I'd recently finished, going back through and copying onto index cards all the passages I liked? Stories. Quotes. Research. Things I was inspired by. Things I want to look up. Things I need to fact check.
A thousand hours? More?
Nearly every dollar I’ve made in my adult life was earned first on the back or front (or both) of an index card.
The only record I have are the thousands and thousands of cards, my sometimes aching hand, and possibly carpal tunnel syndrome.
Notecards are where I sketch out ideas. They're where I record quotes that I want to…