The note card system

Note: This post is one of a bunch I’ll be writing on the writing process itself. These posts will feature systems I’ve picked up or developed myself to research, structure, and edit my writing.

The note card system is something I picked up from one of my favorite authors, Robert Greene. It’s a simple system he uses to research and develop his books. What’s cool about the note card system is that it allows him to research and structure his book at the same time.

The system works in three steps.

First step: read the book that you’re interested in. Take copious notes in the side margins. Underline any interesting passages. Move on to the next book and repeat the same process.

Second step: in a week or so, come back to the book, except bring with you a bunch of index cards. Read through your notes and for each interesting note or line, write it on an index card. Include which book and what page you got that note. On the corner of the card, write a theme or category for the note (e.g. “bravery” or “discipline”). Do this process for each book you read and wrote notes for.

Last step: organize all the cards by theme or category. In the end, for all the research you did, you should have a bunch of cards on a single idea or concept. You now have material for writing and you can even organize the cards in the way you want.

You can easily adapt this idea for the digital realm. I like to use Evernote, so if I wanted to, I could read a book, make notes in the book, and then for each note create an note in Evernote with a reference. I can also group the notes into a certain notebook and organize the notebooks the way I’d like.

What’s great about this simple system is that whether you’re reading one book or 100 books (Greene himself says he researches between 200-400 books for every book he writes), you can use it to get a really good understanding of the topic you want to write about. It organizes your ideas and allows you to write the book as you’re doing the research.



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