In this series, we examine how Umberto Eco’s book, ‘How to Write a Thesis,’ can be used to help writers improve their focus, research smarter and get any writing project done faster. In part three, we look at how index cards help writers organize ideas and improve storytelling.

In Umberto Eco’s newly English-translated book, How to Write a Thesis, the author spends an entire chapter detailing the use of index cards. Sound arcane? Outdated in the Digital Age?

Actually, not at all, says Academy-Award-Winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who also uses index cards for generating ideas for his films. Screenwriters often use index cards to write down notes on characters, plot points, scenes and storylines.

“You go about trying to make your stuff unique… to me that just means specific,” Black said in an Academy Originals video tutorial about his writing process. “There’s a terrible studio note, which is, ‘well let’s just make him relatable.’ I’m like: no, make it really them and really specifically them.”

What Eco and Black share is a love for research and finding the minute details of their subjects. Both writers have come up with techniques to organize mountains of research. From this system of index cards, Eco distills the most important pieces of information into sizable pieces, which can come into view using different frames of reference.

In this blog post, we’ll look at how Eco uses index cards for varying purposes, either as an organizing method to manage lots of research or as a way to record ideas and ignite the fire of dialogue when writing something in the long-form.

umberto eco gives examples of the different types of index cards to use

Various index cards and their purpose

Eco recommends at least seven ways to organize index cards and gives detailed instructions on what to put on them.

However, here we will only highlight a few. Filling in the cards takes time. Yet, he says, this process will actually save you time overall in helping find references, quotes and details of your research when you are writing.

  • Reading index cards: “Most indispensable” according to Eco, are cards where you precisely annotate all references in a book or article, transcribe key quotes and record your evaluation and observations.
  • Quote index cards: These cards reference the book, author and the quote. But Eco is specific in how he reviews quotes, seeking the original text, in the original language verified against and cross-referenced if the quote was pulled from a secondary source.
  • Idea index cards: These cards help group your areas of research into broader themes, so if your research is: “The Concept of Possible Worlds in American Science Fiction,” idea cards or thematic index cards could be labeled as: “Time Warps,” “Parallels Between Possible Worlds,” “Inconsistencies” or “Structure Variations.” Each of these ideas, themes would pull quotes, references from their sources.
  • Connection index cards: These link ideas between your research work plan and your sources.
  • Question index cards: These deal with how to confront a particular problem within your research. And the many questions posed by others who have explored the same topic.
  • Recommendation index card: These note ideas provided by other authors and thinkers, and their suggestions for further development.

why index cards are more powerful than a notebook

Why index cards and not a notebook?

Eco says an organized index card file is nothing short of “majestic.” The intricacies of many ideas, layers of thought and links create something that is intimately yours.

As Black puts it: “[I want to] boil down the moments that I think are cinematic, the moments that are necessary for the story, and I start to put them down on note cards. Each notecard should be as pure and singular an idea as possible because I want to be able to move all the pieces around.”

Having thoughts on cards allows you to sort through different angles, and play with different sequences. You can create mosaics that unlock the mind from seeing the same patterns.

When employed with creative storytelling structures, such as Freytag’s Pyramid, your research and writing can move from being a list of historical facts to an engaging mystery unfolding for your readers.

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