Writing Tip: #23 The Notecard System

Since posting my About Me Video, the number-one question I hear from fans is, “Are you OCD?”

They’re referring to my deceptively organized wall of notecards that represents my current book-in-progress. After describing my process dozens of times, I decided it might make an interesting addition to my writing tips!
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This tip is a subjective, step-by-step guide to the writing process that works best for me. This method won’t work for everyone, but I hope you can use my example to develop your own unique process.

And remember, the only thing that matters is words on the page! If you find that you spend more time tinkering with your system than writing your novel, you need to rethink your process!

Step One
Before I begin a new project, I make sure I’m stocked up on notecards, pens, tape, and push pins. I use 5×8 index cards for scenes, and I cut 4×6 cards in half for individual ideas. In addition to the usual office supplies, I also buy a new journal and write my name and address on the first page.

Step Two
I make sure my journal is in my pocket whenever I leave the apartment. If I hear a joke or an interesting anecdote—or if my mind wanders into the realm of my current story—I take a note. When I fill a few pages, I copy any relevant notes onto the small notecards that have been cut in half. This usually amounts to a sizable stack of mini index cards to be sorted later.

This may seem like a redundant step, but I’ve found that rewriting my journal notes onto index cards not only reminds me of my ideas, but allows me to expand on them with a fresh perspective.

Step Three
This is where the magic happens. As the story develops, I’ll begin to detect key scenes. When I do, I immediately write them across the top of the large cards and place them in a rough sequence on my bulletin board. Next, I flip through my tiny notecards and tape ideas to the relevant scene. This process usually starts a chain reaction in my mind; the more the story comes together, the more I’m able to see new connections, and the more I expound on my initial notes.

THIS CAN BE A MESSY PROCESS. I don’t try to make the cards look perfect… they’ll be rearranged a hundred times before I’m finished!

Step Four
Next, I repeat step three until the story has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s important to note that I still don’t know everything about my book! There could be a hundred unanswered questions throughout the story, but I’ll generally have a good sense of character arcs, twists, vital scenes… and ALWAYS my ending.

Step Five
It’s finally time to start writing! I usually remove the first scene, scan the tiny cards to make sure I don’t miss important beats, then I begin to write the scene.

Just because I’m working on the book itself doesn’t mean the index cards don’t move! Sometimes a character will become obstinate and ignore what I wrote on the card. This is okay! The notes are a general guideline, not hard and fast rules.

When I finish a card, I remove it from the board and file it away.

Every so often I’ll have a card with a giant question mark on it. This means that I know what needs to happen in the scene, but I haven’t fleshed out the details yet. Instead of waiting until I reach that card, I’ll pull it off the wall, put it in my pocket, and spend a day thinking about it. When I have an idea, I write it on the card!

Benefits of the Notecard System

  • It keeps the story tight! I only keep the notes that add to my story… and I cut the rest. If a scene sucks but has important story points, I can always cut the scene and transfer the notes to another card.
  • It helps you avoid an extensive rewrite process! Every book needs a second or third pass when the first draft is complete… but if you structure your story correctly before you start writing, you can greatly reduce your stress later. The notecards help significantly.
  • It kills writer’s block! Even if the order of the scenes change, I always know what beats to hit, so I never find myself trapped in the middle of my story with nowhere to go. I always know what comes next.
  • It lets me know how much work I have left! There’s no better way to judge the amount of time it’ll take to finish your book than a notecard system. When I fall into a regular pattern, I get pretty good at estimating my completion date!

Again, it’s important to remember that my process will not work for everybody. However, if you’re a new writer who’s still developing your craft, I hope this gives you a good place to start!

My notes for The Brandywine Prophet.

Want more writing tips? Check out my new book, Put the Cat In the Oven Before You Describe the Kitchen.

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7 comments

  1. Nathan Payne

    I started my first novel project wth the notecard system, albeit a much simpler, less organized one but a notecard system nonetheless. I enjoyed reading about your system and think it’ll definitely help should I ever go back to that system. I definitely like the idea of filing completed portions away so that you can constantly see your progress. Great idea.

    • jakevanderark

      Thanks, Nathan! I honestly don’t think I’d be able to write a novel without it. People think I’m OCD, but I’m really not! They’re not even that organized… but they give me a sense of structure, and, like you said, a motivating indication of progress : )

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  4. Joycelyn

    This is great. I use notecards, too, but when I’m working on a project, they’re scattered all over my apartment. One day I happened to glance at a card on the dining room table that said “Molly’s in daycare.” I could only imagine the pandemonium if something happened to me and the police had to break into my place. “Who’s Molly?” and “Which daycare?” I try to be more rigorous about filing my cards away now.

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