And I learned it in 7th grade
I have a very specific method for organizing my research and thoughts whenever I’m writing anything longer than a short article. I learned this method from a teacher in middle school, and I cannot imagine how a human being could write a book any other way.
The original method I was taught involved writing each bit of research information, quotation from a source, or idea on an index card. I continued to use this analog method right up through my Ph.D. dissertation and first monograph. After a scare in the early stages of researching my second monograph, when I thought all of my index cards had been lost in a flood, I switched to an electronic version: a Word doc containing a table with four cells that I can type or paste information into (and easily back up). As my research methods became more and more digital, the ease of pasting quotations and references in this way (instead of copying them by hand) has really speeded things up.
As I am reading through the books and articles that I’ve identified as relevant to my topic, every time I come across an idea or fact or quotation that seems potentially useful, I throw it into a virtual index card.
I read for a long time — in the case of Drunk, about 18 months. When I’m done, I’ve got literally thousands of these cards. I’ve also got a vague sense in my head of how they should be organized — that is, what the structure of the book is going to be. This is generally when I write the formal book proposal. I know enough about the topic, now, that I have a good idea of what my central arguments are going to be and how I am going to organize the chapters. Ideally, I also have some choice anecdotes and a snappy hook to get people (and potential publishers) interested in the topic. There is an outline of the chapters, though the actual chapter structure may (as we will see) change.
Proposal sold! Great, now I need to actually write it. This is where the method really shines.
Here’s how you do it. First, print out all of the index cards and then physically cut them to produce four cards per page of notes. This is simultaneously tedious and relaxing. Children, who in our post-agricultural age are otherwise pretty useless economically, can actually be usefully employed at this stage. They love cutting things with scissors, and precision is not crucial.
Now you’ve got 1) a preliminary book chapter outline and 2) huge stacks of more-or-less uniformly-sized index cards. (Uniformity will increase as your children get older, but the trade-off is that they gradually become less interested in the task. If you want well-cut index cards, be prepared to do most of it yourself.)
The next stage is the hardest. It requires, ideally, several undisturbed days alone and lots of bare surfaces to work with. Large quantities of caffeine in the morning and afternoon, and a judicious amount of wine in the evening, are also essential.
The process is then fairly straightforward, at least in theory. You just go through the index cards, one by one. You label them with a category number: I use roman numerals to indicate chapters and then numbers for chapter sub-sections (e.g., I.2). You then stack them in the appropriate stack. Simple.
The problem is that it is never simple. Categories will grow so large that you’ll realize you need to divide them. Others will be so sparse that you’ll realize that section, or even chapter, needs to get completely cut or combined into another chapter. Annoying, evil cards will stubbornly refuse to fit into any existing chapter/subchapter categories. These you either crumple and throw away (this is very satisfying!), or — if they still seem important — are sent to hover ominously on the outskirts of your nice, tidy piles, threatening the very structure and integrity of the intellectual edifice that you are building.
Chemical substances aside, I cannot emphasize enough the need for expansive physical space. I think the power of this method is that it turns a room, or set of rooms, into essentially an enormous computer screen. You will spend a lot of time in the midst of this screen, just pacing around, staring at your piles and the uncategorized outliers, scanning cards and thinking and muttering to yourself, and you need enough space to see everything at once. You especially have to allow the outliers a place to hang out on their own, visible and accessible, waiting for friends to join them, or to be welcomed into a new stack that fits them.
The outline is going to change, sometimes a lot. I print out the outline and lay it out near the stacks of index cards, marking it up with a pen as I reorganize. New sections get added, existing sections get cut or combined, sometimes entirely new chapters emerge. Did I mention you need days alone to do this? It’s really hard to do in small chunks of time, especially if people (or dogs) are going to come in and knock over your piles. You also need to be thinking about it all the time. You will wake up in the middle of the night and rush out to look at the stacks, suddenly understanding where a couple of the pesky outliers will go, or how they will force a re-structuring of the book. You will try to watch a TV show to decompress and something a character says will become a new index card that has to be immediately printed out and cut up and added to a pile. This is the absolute hardest part of the writing process, in my mind. The most exciting, too, because you’re never quite sure where it’s going to end up.
Most of us don’t have the luxury of long-term, dedicated writing lairs. Once you get the basic structure done and you are through most, if not all, of your cards, you can rubber-band or clip them together into stacks, and organize them folders so that they are safe and portable. If you’re forced to travel or move around in the midst of this, carry your uncategorized cards around with you, and lay them out on surfaces whenever you can and stare at them, ideally while drinking a cocktail. They will eventually order themselves, and can be brought back into the fold when you return to your main writing headquarters.
When you’re finished, you are going to be left with a heavily-reorganized book outline and stacks and stacks of categorized cards. With the cards rubber-banded or clipped together, and safely filed away in folders, you are then fully mobile: you can just carry around the stacks you need for whatever chapter/section you are working on.
The hard part is done, now you just have to write.
That sounds challenging, of course, but I find that the writing, at this stage, is actually relatively easy: the card organization has already done most of the work. The cards tell the story, you now just need to (skillfully!) weave them together.
I hope this proves helpful to both experienced and aspiring writers. I honestly don’t know how one could write a book any other way.
I no longer remember the name of the 7th grade English teacher (Toms River Intermediate School West, c. 1980–1981) who taught me this method, but if she is out there: thanks!
Edward Slingerland is Distinguished University Scholar and Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, and the author of Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization.