9 Reasons To Index-Card Your Manuscript

Last week I finished the first draft of The Children Of Falore (title subject to change). Which means that, in the next few days, I’ll be starting the editing phase.

But there’s one thing I always do before editing a manuscript, and that is indexing. What’s that, you ask? Basically, I go through my outline*and fill an index card for each scene in my manuscript. On each index card I include the following information:

  • Scene title/brief summary (so I know what’s going on)
  • Scene number (the order in which they tentatively take place)
  • POV character (not necessary if all your scenes are the same POV)
  • Location
  • Time of events in story context
  • Word count
  • Important info disclosed (if applicable)
  • Marks for pivotal scenes (inciting event, climax, turning points, etc.)

*I use Scrivener, so it’s all there on the screen, but you may not have a physical outline. In that case, flipping/scrolling through the finished manuscript itself works just as well, if a bit tedious. 

I end up with pretty much my whole manuscript condensed into a stack of index cards. For Little One, which had about 93k words, I needed about 70 cards because most of my scenes were on the short side. Your results will vary. Spread out on the table, it looked like this:

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The reasons I do this are several. Here, I’ll list some of the major benefits of indexing your manuscript’s first draft.

#1 Get the big picture (literally)

Having all your scenes compiled in a physical, manageable stack of cards makes getting the big picture so much easier in the most tangible way. Take the photo above, for instance. I can immediately spot my story’s layout and the location of major events. Are they too close together? Does my pacing need work? Do I need more exciting chapters? Should I slow down? This is a great way to spot those potential issues.

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Here’s a photo of my index cards beside my outline diagram. Twice the big-picture-viewing, twice the efficiency. 

#2 Manage characters and POV

You wrote down each scene’s POV character. Now you can tell what the balance is between your main characters and your secondary characters, as well as if it needs adjusting. Hint: color coding each card according to its POV character makes this a visual piece of cake. You won’t even have to read the card.

#3 Spot plot holes

Having your whole plot laid out where you can see it all at once has a knack for revealing plot holes you may have missed just scrolling down a screen.

#4 Organize or re-organize

You can mix and match your index cards to your hearts content to rearrange chapters, scenes, or whole sections without messing up your document or having to copy-paste a million times. Again, the advantage of visualizing where each scene sits can be super valuable to see if maybe chapter 4 might work better as a part of chapter 7.

#5 Reference quickly

For all other purposes or editing needs, you’ll have your stack of scenes ready to consult at a moment’s notice. You’d be surprised how much time you’ll save when fact-checking, double-checking, quoting, comparing, etc. The more intricate your story, the more likely you’ll thank yourself for making this resource.

#6 Balance content

If you color-code your index cards according to content type (dialogue, action, backstory, flashback, description, etc.), you’ll be able to spot unbalanced sections right away.

#7 Jot down notes

Keep a stack of pens or markers nearby, and you can quickly make marks or notes on your cards according to each scene’s needs. A handful of my index cards ended up with big ‘ol red x’s on them. They simply didn’t add anything, so out they went. Yes, you can do this on a printed doc or a laptop as well, but if you have your cards anyway, it saves time, and can be accessed quickly later on.

#8 Reinforce story structure

If you’re not an outline and prefer to make things up as you go, indexing your manuscript is a fantastic way to make sure your first (or second, third, etc.) draft is properly structured so that readers don’t get lost or confused when reading. Not all ‘pantsed’ manuscripts necessarily need this, but there’s a greater peril of structure weakness in early drafts without prior outlining.

#9 Keep track of time

If you’re like me, you very easily lose track of how much time has passed in your story. If you marked your cards accordingly, you’ll be able to keep track of how many days, weeks, or months go by during and between scenes.


There are other advantages to indexing your manuscript via scene-list. These are some of the ones that have helped me the most. I hope some of them help you as well, should you decide to give it a try!

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7 thoughts on “9 Reasons To Index-Card Your Manuscript

  1. For my current WIP, a tight deadline forced me to do this (in Scrivener) for a chapter outline. I used the summary to write out everything that would happen in the chapter, and then used metadata to add any additional information (what characters, what time, what setting, etc). I’ve found it so helpful and am looking forward to seeing how it plays out as my draft unfolds!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, I really should do this! As a pantser #8 especially resonated with me. I haven’t even done an outline yet and my current WIP is at 60k, whoops (but after reading Little One I can see why you’d need indexing,way more epic then my WIP). My next WIP has many different character POVs, so I may have to employ a system like this, so thanks for sharing!

    Like

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