Historians and note cards?? Does Scrivener work well?

I’m an academic historian trying to decide whether to make the switch from paper index cards to a computer-based note card system (ie, Scrivener). For my last two books, I’ve taken many of my initial notes in word (or scanned documents into pdf files). I can do some organizing in word for shorter essays, but for entire books, I still find that printing my paragraphs, quotes, and ideas out onto paper and then taping them onto index cards works the best for big picture reorganization. (Soon I have walls, desks, floors, all covered with index cards, that are keyed with bright colors of highlighters by topic, etc. You get the idea). Having massive surface areas where I can move physical cards around seems to have been a key element of my thinking since my high school history teacher taught us this method way back in the dark ages. Physically manipulating the cards has always led to insights that I didn’t have until I started rearranging cards in real space.

But I’m really sick of printing out, then cutting and pasting, then taping onto cards, then retyping text back into a word processing program (or hiring someone to retype), etc etc. Now that I have another book deadline coming up, and thousands upon thousands of notes scattered in hundreds of files on my computer–I’m considering moving to Scrivener for note card organization, instead of dumping them all out onto physical cards I can shuffle.

Have any professional historians (or other academic writers) on this forum really abandoned the physical note card method we were all taught, and found electronic note cards to work for them? The corkboard function in Scrivener seems like it would work–but my screen is only 17" large, so it’s hard to imagine it facilitate thought the way large spaces seem to do.

I’m hoping for feedback from other academics who have used scrivener, successfully or unsuccessfully, for working with large masses of quotes, notes, ideas, images, etc.

(Of course, my husband wonders if my sudden interest in scrivener is just a way of avoiding that looming deadline.)

Tactile versus digital is such a personal thing. I grew up in that twilight zone where digital was just starting to boom, but tactile methods were still the way things were done. So I have a bit of both in my blood, and go back and forth. In my work space, I have an entire wall that is dedicated to planning–littered with index cards, strings running between them, and those handy little post-it colour flags that 3M makes. On the other hand, having grown up with the evolution of digital methods, I find using tools like Tinderbox or Scrivener to be second nature.

Here are some things that I miss, in Scrivener. I miss being able to drag a card anywhere on a huge space. I miss “free hand” clustering to represent relationships. Tinderbox’s map feature is much more like a wall in this regard, whereas Scrivener’s cards are a rigid matrix, strictly linear and directly relating to underlying structure. You cannot move a group of cards together so show that they belong together, without disrupting the flow of the book beneath the cards. Tinderbox’s map is automatically generated in a sequence which relates to the underlying order in the outliner, but moving tiles around on the map does not disrupt that outline order.

Things that I do not miss: Needing to insert a card early in a long sequence and moving mass amounts of cards around to make space for it. Forgot a section early on? Or decide to move sections 2, 3, and 4 down toward the end of the book? No problem, everything just reforms a perfect matrix around your change. Neither the wall nor Tinderbox allows for that kind of decision making without some effort (Yes, you can mass arrange a Tinderbox map to match outline, but that cleans/messes up everything not just the ones you changed).

These are the obvious pros and cons, really. Literally speaking, the pieces are all there. The title of the card, the body text, a way of colouring it, a way of “stamping” it. I suppose the only thing missing is the string. The more difficult part to discern is whether or not you will be able to really think in a different system. I find it only slightly more difficult in a digital version of the corkboard, but not so much that it makes me want to go back to the wall.

The wall has stood obsolete and untouched for a long time now. That really says all that needs to be said, for me. I keep it up because in an odd way, having that massive analogue clutter behind me helps me get in the writing mood, even if I am no longer using it.

Hi nelangst, if you think about what it is you have been doing since you learned to use cards, you have in fact been using topics and adding info on each card.

Then you have spread these out in table form looking for threads and connections. Then reshaped the big table and added and deleted stuff. Discovering, as you went, a timeline and a corresponding arc of argument - a thesis, if you like.

You can do this in Scrivener in a couple of easy ways. Perhaps the easiest is to get all the topics lined up in the binder as chapters and drag subtopics into them. How? Well rename DRAFT something inspirational for you such as the title of your book or paper. Then click on the icon. Then click the add button for as many key topics as you need. Then just name them one at a time.

topic 1
topic 2
topic 3

and so on.

Then, say you decide that topic 3 is really a subtopic of topic 2 all you need do is drag the icon for topic 3 onto the icon for topic 2. So what you have is:

topic 1
topic 2
topic 3 (renamed as 2.1)

These topics will show up on the cards - but in reality you don’t need them - it is only a habit of organisation you have come to depend on, it is not a way of writing. It seems that you do the real writing when you have got the organisation stuff out of the way. Scrivener will give you all the benefits of organising and doing the writing all at the same time.

Master the splits. A 17" screen should enable this kind of exercise quite well in vertical splits. You will be surprised how easy it is.

So Topic 1 might be in the left vertical split and topic 2 or 2.1 in the right hand split. Now you just cut or copy and paste from one to the other; add stuff as you see fit and edit as you go. You will have as much stuff as you want to create topics for. Some may be destined for book or paper chapters so it goes under the DRAFT (now renamed MY BRILLIANT HISTORY BOOK - or whatever), some may go into the RESEARCH folder, some may just be placed under loose but useful headers in the binder wherever you want them to be.

topic 1
topic 2
topic 3 (renamed as 2.1)
topic 3
topic 4

file about period of …
file about key people …
file about corresponding military adventures …
file about concurrent commercial enterprises …
file about religious movements …

Folder that includes files about significant people

Folder that includes feminist issues
topic 1 Wives of clergymen etc etc
topic 2 Women get the vote …

Folder that includes …

Folder that includes …

You get the picture.


I’m co-writing a biography that involves hundreds of sources, now catalogued in DevonNote. (I’m contemplating converting those to Scrivener files but may just stick with Devon as we’re so far along already.)
But we started writing it using a Hypercard stack my coauthor devised and whose functions I’m hoping to replicate in Scrivener. The best thing about such virtual cards (in Scriv or Devon or a database or a program like SuperNotecard) is that you can instantly reorganize them based on keywords, dates, character names, etc. This allows you to easily view all the cards that pertain to a single year, or a single theme etc., which offers obvious advantages. Plus you can link cards to sources (which helps with footnotes) and do many other things physical cards won’t allow.
We talked a bit about this elsewhere on this forum, in reference to John McPhee’s well known use of index cards and his subsequent conversion to digital, so if you search for his name, it’ll probably turn up.

The real question is whether you will enjoy having more structure imposed on you by the way the corkboard works as an interface to an outliner - that means stacks, not clusters. You can crank the corkboard up to 9x10 = 90 cards or so, depending on screen size, but it is most useable (for me) in the 20-25 card range - is that enough of an overview for you?

Personally, I really love the outliner-corkboard, because I tended to spread out index cards on the floor for outlining – not mind-mapping. If you are more into mind-mapping, you might be much happier in an RTF-enabled application that uses the “Stickies” index card metaphor, e.g.:

Stickies, comes with OS X, so easy to play with. For managing truly massive numbers quickly, rooswitch (roobasoft.com/rooSwitch/) makes loading many large sets quick and easy - although there is no internal concept of structure within a set, and export could be a nightmare. Still, nothing says you can’t write in Stickies and then eventually export to Scrivener.

Other midrange “advanced Stickies” software for free or a modest fee includes ohNotes, Stick 'Em Up, and Sticky Notes:


SOHO Notes is an industrial-strength note program, but customers don’t recommend purchase right now - the software and support is currently in chaos.

Finally, Tinderbox (eastgate.com/Tinderbox/) is more of a Total Note-Writing Solution, in that it has hundreds of interacting features and people have conferences just to talk about new ways of using it. Most people also find it has very a steep learning curve, although the view from the top is supposedly wonderful. Like the Devon products such as DevonThink, Tinderbox also tends to encourage you to migrate your entire life inside the Tinderbox database - which you will either love or hate. Still, if large surface areas are how you think, you can’t beat it - as you can see for example in this screenshot:

eastgate.com/Tinderbox/eleme … MapBig.jpg

Hope this helped.

It is not possible to duplicate the effect of a 8’ x 12’ wall of cards in Scrivener even with a bigger screen. So, if you have come to depend on seeing hundreds of cards or sources at the same time then using Scrivener’s card system may not work for you. For example, the designers in our office use 4’ x 4’ boards to assemble their thoughts and, later, their alternative designs. It is simply impossible to duplicate the effect of simultaneously seeing 6 designs printed out at 600dpi on even a 30" cinema display. The information density of the board is just too huge.

Many people on these forums have mentioned how well the Scrivener system works for them though, so it would certainly be worth trying it on a smaller project.

If you do decide to switch-over to digital cards I would very strongly suggest you get the biggest monitor you can afford. Big screens are cheaper now and any writer dealing with large numbers of sources or notes will be so much happier being able to see more of them at once.


Thanks for all the suggestions and feedback. I didn’t realize McPhee had switched over to digital cards. I poked into tinderbox a little, but maybe I should look further. I’ve also played with devonthink some, but breaking all my files into paragraph sized units seemed necessary for it to function well, and that was a daunting task.

One of the issues that puzzles me about scrivener is how it works with tens of thousands of index cards–can the folder systems keep track of them? I do like the idea of endless searchability and connectivity.

I’ve experimented with many forms of writing software, but since finding Scrivener last year, I use nothing else. I do keep all research notes in either DevonThink Pro or DevonNote, depending on the project size.

The DT apps store all forms of data, from files or Web, they search and load pages quickly, and they provide concordances and other AI tools for analyzing and classifying data. Add notes or keywords to the Comment panes, and they become organized file drawers in my digital world.

Scrivener is the outliner, drafter, and tagger. I use the Inspector to write notes and comments to myself, along with useful tags and links. While you could place Hypercard data in a Scrivener file, I recommend using a DT app for that, so it’s available for other projects later on.

After you complete all writing and footnoting, export to a word processor for final formatting of a document to send to editors and publishers.

Not necessary, in my experience. Some people use it that way, but it’s by no means a requirement.


Though, to be fair that screenshot is far from ordinary. Something along these lines is what you might see through more casual usage. :slight_smile:

This is probably the wrong place to ask, but what about the Supernotecard (mentioned by an earlier poster in this thread). It doesn’t seem as powerful as scrivener, certainly, but the structure seems closer to that of traditional notecards. Instead of an index card with a synopsis for each complete document, each note card seems to represent what traditional note card represented: a thought, quote, or paragraph. Are there major differences between supernotecard and scrivener in how well they work for academics?

Hmm, I’m not quite sure why you would think that an index card in Scrivener cannot represent a thought, quote or paragraph. Whilst each on is linked to a document, and therefore its content is called a “synopsis”, it can contain whatever you want.

All the best,

Well, YMMV, but I tried supernotecard (after exporting my aforementioned hypercard stack to it), and it was fine, but DevonNote ultimately proved more flexible (and cheaper!), so I bought it instead. Now I’m finding that, for my purposes (shorter articles so far but probably for the book as well, when I return to it), Scrivener can probably replace DevonNote.
You might want to think beyond Scrivener’s corkboard. Yes, those little cards look like paper index cards and thus encourage you to organize them in similar ways. But really, much of the power of Scrivener lies in its flexibility. A Scriv doc in the Binder can function just like a notecard, too, except it doesn’t have the little horizontal lines. It can also work like a folder, or be part of a hierarchy as in an outliner. Or, best of all, it can be any of those things depending on when you need them to play that role.

So, I guess what I’m saying is, give Scrivener a try but don’t get hung up exclusively on the Corkboard/Notecard metaphor, which is just one of many possible ways of using it. Rather, see how you might adapt the Binder and Outliner as well as the Corkboard to your working methods, and be open to the possibility of changing the view depending on where you are in the process – info collecting, organizing, outlining, writing. You can do all that in SNC plus a WP (and a good outliner like OmniOutliner) but in my experience, Scrivener (with its footnoting, keyword, annotating and all the other features much raved about here) makes that process seamless and more efficient, even with great piles of info.
Admittedly, this does require a bit of studying the tutorial and manual and even these forums to understand just how the different possibilities can work – I’m still learning myself – but Scrivener is still much more intuitive than Devon or any other organizing app I know, and the rewards are greater than a simpler but less powerful app like SNC, once you do figure out a way to make it work for you.


I just discovered that you can share research folders between Scrivener projects, by dragging & dropping them. If I understand correctly what you mean, I would say that you can make researches available for other projects also in Scrivener.


There’s also SuperNoteCard which does a lot of what you’re looking for, with the bonus of export to RTF (and others) for use in Scrivener.

Note that I just use SNC for working out snippets of ideas so I can’t say how it would work for an entire manuscript.

But for moving and stacking of cards, it does the job very well, imo.

Up to a point.

My main DevonThink database runs to more than 1.5 million words, and is not even particularly comprehensive. (Nor is it particularly large by the standards of other DT users.) That’s rather more than I would want to drag along from one Scrivener project to another.

It’s true that I don’t use all of that information on any given project. But it’s also true that I never know in advance what I’m going to need. Better to have it all in one place, especially when that place has as many data management tools as DevonThink does.

None of which is a complaint about Scrivener. Its authoring tools blow DevonThink (and most dedicated word processors, for that matter) completely out of the water. But Keith would be the first to admit that it just isn’t intended to be a research database.


This isn’t a complaint about Scrivener either, but I must confess that sometimes I miss the opportunities a field based database application can offer. Something like Bookends, and with the search options and the organizational capabilities Bookends has, but for ordinary, mostly brief, miscellaneous notes. Or something like Aperture.

I know Filemaker, of course, and I tried it out on various occasions, but I never could find my way into it. Somehow, Filemaker seems to belong to another world.

Geezum Crow (as we say in the mountains) does anybody understand Filemaker?

I’ve been a database professional for a couple of decades, and there’s still things in Filemaker that make no (#$&(#$& sense at all to me.

So don’t anyone feel bad about struggling with it. And it certainly doesn’t apply in this case.

The main point is that when you change your method of working it takes time, it takes effort and you lose productivity, initially. But if you have the space and time, you will find completely new ways of working.

I am also a historian, and have just completed my PhD dissertation. I have come to history late, after a career in computing. As a result I have never been able to understand how other historians could make sense of their material on paper note cards. How do you find things? how do you keep track of everything? I had used Hypercard a great deal in my work and started off with that when I started my PhD. But soon found that it did not give me enough overview. I switched to an outliner (More, now Omni Outliner) and found that it did everything note cards seem to do for other researchers. I simply kept things grouped in book sections or chapter, but, because it’s all digital, could easily move things from one file to another, or re-arrange within files. The main thing is being able to search through stacks of files!! Oh what joy to always be able to find that elusive fact you know you’ve written down somewhere. Now that I have discovered Scrivener I find I have many tools together in one place. But I am still learning to use it and have not switched over my project to it, although I am making good use of it. I will make full use of it for my next project.


I am writing a history book right now, and the only reason I decided to do so was because I had already purchased Scrivener. Being that this is my first book, I’m bringing no prior experience with me, such as the notecards, etc. I’m very thankful for that because I feel like I can attack this on my own terms without having to forget or abandon these once-common devices more experienced authors all seem to have used since the dawn of the notecard.

Considering that, and that you are coming at this from the opposite approach as I am, I’m curious to learn how you worked with Scrivener. Which old-school techniques did you retain, and which ones did you abandon in favor of tools offered within Scrivener?

Kindly yours,

P.S. I should clarify that having Scrivener was not the sole reason for my having chosen to write a history book. Rather, it suited the task so perfectly that it became the means by which with I overcame my laziness and reluctance to embark on such a daunting task. Scrivener made the overwhelming prospect not only surmountable but enjoyable, too.