Before you reach for that cloud-based, sunspot-powered geniusphone outlining app, consider the low-tech index card.
I used to write a lot of longer pieces where an outline was a necessity, so in the 80s and 90s I test-drove most of the available outlining software. (Almost none of it is still available, illustrating the dangers of investing muscle memory in proprietary software).
Since then, outlining has been integrated right into word processors (typically poorly), or improved beyond recognition (mind mapping, cloud sorting, etc).
Simple linear outlines from your word processor work fine for simple linear documents, but I recently wrote a couple video projects. After hacking my way through scene after scene using only a simple outline, I knew real discontent.
So I did what any intelligent writer would do — I stole from better, more-experienced writers.
I turned to the 3″ x 5″ index card.
Why The Card Is King
Index cards are a natural pretty much anytime you’re dealing with discrete elements of a larger piece. Like scenes from a movie or book. Or pages and spreads of a brochure.
That’s why they’re still commonly used by screenwriters, and why it was so easy to map my video scripts.
(For documentary/AV style video scripts which use a two-column format, I draw a vertical line down the middle of the card and mimic the script style — the left side is for visual ideas and the right is for sound.)
I also mapped the pages and spreads for an annual report project using index cards, saving time and giving me the ability to see the whole layout at once.
I can reshuffle my scenes or spreads in seconds. Quickly scratch out a badly behaved idea and replace it with a good one. Or simply make sure it all makes sense.
More importantly, index cards encourage the right kind of thinking. There isn’t room to write copy, so you work at the level of ideas instead of words.
By contrast, outliners are recognizably word processors and you’re typing, so the temptation to drill down to a concept-killing level of detail — which amounts to writing — remains.
I used index cards at the start of my career (a savvy account person once taught me how to visually map out a coherent campaign strategy using colored index cards), and once again they’re a valuable part of my toolkit.
I shouldn’t be surprised; I’m using pretty much the same letters and words I did back in the 80s and 90s. Why not some of the same technology?
Keep writing (on index cards if necessary), Tom Chandler.