When I was in seventh grade, I had to write my first research paper.
Back then, we were only expected to write a summary — a restatement of facts in our own words. Most of the paper should be citations. Though our teachers didn’t put it this way, they really meant we shouldn’t put much original thought into it. Just the facts, please; no opinions need apply.
We had to select at least 5 sources. Back then, it consisted of books, magazines, newspapers, and similar reference materials. There was no such thing as the Internet, and what little of it existed was difficult to access and poorly cataloged.
With our sources in hand, we had to write each idea, fact, figure, etc. that we might use on a separate index card. Somehow, this was supposed to help us organize our thoughts — except that we were never instructed how. Beyond turning them in on a milestone date, I had no clue what to do with them.
Which left me with a crap ton of useless index cards. What was the point? Maybe some people figured it out, but I sure didn’t. And I’m not the only one — I asked my wife and she drew a blank, too. She hated those pointless index cards just as much as I did, and no one in her class figured out what to do with them.
Now that I’ve taken the time to study how the greats organize their fiction, I found a useful parallel in Syd Field’s book Screenwriting.
Before writing a screenplay, Field writes a scene summary on an index card for each scene, tacking them to a bulletin board in the order he thinks is best. This way, we can see a summary of the entire work before investing months or years writing it.
If something isn’t right, we can trash it. Or we can rearrange the index cards to see how the story reads in a different order. We can see the aerial view of the work before doing the heavy lifting.
See the connection?
For the research paper, lay those “pointless” index cards out in the order you want to discuss them. You can see how they will read in a different order quickly and easily just by rearranging them (as we did with the scenes above). This will give you a nice visual aid to write or revise your outline with, and will make citations quick and easy (because you color coded the cards, right?).
I use this technique in both fiction and nonfiction. Let me take the time to explain, as well as plug some great free software.
In my religion and philosophy blog, I often have to answer comments or opposing blog posts. I use a computerized index card program called Text Block Writer to do a variation of the technique described above in order to answer especially lengthy comments or blog posts. That way, I can sort it a few different ways and see what makes the most impact (or sense).
And, of course, script writing software CeltX has a built-in index card feature to help write screenplays and comic book scripts, as well as novels (but I don’t really care much for the novel writing capability yet).
I wish that the power of the index card was something I had known all along instead of a recent discovery! I probably would have become a much stronger writer more quickly. But, at least I know now; and, through the magic of my blog, you dear reader can learn the lesson too. Hopefully earlier in life than I did.