Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


This post on paper clips — and other “everyday things”: Henry Petroski really should have been mentioned in the post — should be taken as yet another reminder of some important truths:

  • Non-electronic technologies are still technologies;
  • Technologies that have been developed (in some cases perfected) over decades are even centuries are often extremely well-optimized for the work they’re put to;
  • To slightly adapt Friedrich Kittler, “New technologies do not make old technologies obsolete; they assign them other places in the system.”

I’m thinking about these matters a lot because not long ago I made a significant change in my research methods for my book in progress. This is the largest and most complex project I’ve even endeavored, and has, as Tolkien said about The Lord of the Rings, “grown in the telling”; keeping all the citations, quotes, information, and ideas straight has been ... well, I started to write “extremely difficult,” but I think I need to amend that to “impossible.”

Then, after reading Hua Hsu’s wonderful review-essay, I picked up a copy of Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis, and when I got to his chapter on note cards, a light went on: That’s what I need, I said to myself. Index cards. So here’s what I did:

Firs, I bought index cards in various colors. Then I assigned a color to each of the major thinkers I’m writing about in my book: W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, and Simone Weil — and reserved white cards for general notes (ideas, tasks, etc.). Every time I add a card to any of the colored stacks I number it, so I can cross-reference cards: e.g., the seventeenth blue card (Simone Weil) would be referred to elsewhere as B17. Finally, when the date of a publication or event is relevant, I write that date in the upper right corner. Every few days I read through the cards to discern correspondences, which I can then mark by cross-reference. And when I sit down at the computer I surround myself with these cards, which I can lay out in whatever pattern seems appropriate at the time, taking in the relevant content at a glance.

This is one of the best organizational decisions I have made in a long time, and I’m already thinking about ways to extent it to other kinds of tasks: class planning, for instance. If I learn anything more of interest as this project moves along, I’ll make a report here.


  • Just FYI: If you're writing a comment that says "Have you tried [this other thing, probably an app, that I like, or maybe just have heard of, which I am now going to recommend to you even though the entire point of your post was to describe how well your current system is working for you]?" — don't bother. I won't post it.

  • No recommendations, Alan, just applause. This is a wonderfully liberating suggestion of yours--thank you! (Of course, I suppose I should wait to see if it actually helps me before I express thanks, but I'm feeling generous today.)

  • Using index cards was how I was taught to prepare a research paper in high school more than 30 years ago. If I were writing research papers of any sophistication now instead of modest blog posts and comments, that's still how I would proceed. You don't indicate whether you're resurrecting and old style of preparation or discovered a new one (new to you anyway). Either way, may it prove fruitful for you.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]