Writing a book with index cards

I really liked Edward Slingerland’s coverage of how he wrote his book, mainly reading (for 18 months!), typing up note-sized cut outs in Microsoft Word and printing them out and pasting them on index cards, and then arranging and re-arranging the ideas until it makes sense.

This always sounded like a ton of unnecessary work to me, and I always tried—and failed!—to write a book without index cards and notes. For me, the dealbreaker was organisation. My departure points would get too messy and intermingled, and I couldn’t move them around as much as I’d like. I’d also spend way too much time looking for a piece of research I’d uncovered. 

Luckily, I came across Ryan Holiday’s extensive writing on his index cards (elaborated upon by his research assistant Billy Oppenheimer), which he picked up from Robert Greene.

I’d tried applying Ryan’s and Robert’s methods to my work in several sprints, and it didn’t really work—my cards would fall all out of order. Luckily, I came across the zettelkasten method, which suggests a small detail—adding a unique identifier to each card—and everything clicked into place for me. Every card has a proper place.

My note collection for the book that became Creative Doing is currently at 328 notecards. Looking back, it was focused, and incredibly gruelling. 

I still take plenty of notes, though a lot of it sits inside a big Google Doc waiting to be sifted through, and a bunch of ideas also make it here to this blog. That’s been nice too; I can receive feedback, and people also add links to way more departure points, saving me hours of research and discovery.
See also the tyranny of the note taking industrial complex, and taking your career to the next level with notes.

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