How to use @Artefact_Cards for academic writing

I finally received my Artefact Cards last week and I love them. They were a pain to get hold of due to a spectacularly inept delivery company but Artefact soon rectified this when I e-mailed them to complain. They’re probably only likely to appeal to those with a real stationary problem but if you too find yourself fixated on Moleskine notebooks and their ilk then I suspect you will like them every bit as much as I do.

The idea behind the cards is to materialise ideas. This is a concept that appeals to me immensely. One of the weirdest experiences of my life was the first time I printed out my PhD thesis. Suddenly the ethereality which had recurrently seeped into every part of my life over the past six years was transmuted into a thing… it was just some stuff that I had written. This was a more intense form of a feeling that I often get when writing. Getting the words out into the world, giving them a form, somehow makes my mind feel lighter, even if that form is digital. The idea becomes something ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’, with a definite form rather than a potential range.

The card themselves are designed to “help you craft better ideas, create new idea combinations by moving, shuffling, stacking, dealing and matching them”. In essence they’re just blank playing cards, with a look and feel which has obviously been the subject of much thought, which can be filled using the supplied Sharpie. They’re perhaps slightly overpriced but it’s hard to begrudge an individual creator this for a product that so much love has clearly gone into.

I’m already finding them immensely useful. In the cards below are the talk I’m giving at the Digital Sociology conference in New York in a couple of weeks. I recorded everything I wanted to say on its own individual card. I’m now going to arrange them in order to draw out clusters, perhaps discard a few and then write the talk using these cards as prompts. In this sense, it allows me to organise my ideas in a more systematic way without sacrificing the writing-to-see-what-happens approach which I prefer. I’m sure some of the prompts will be discarded, others will be rethought and all of them will exceed the limits of what I placed on the card itself.


In the past I’ve blogged about this in terms of non-linear creativity. I’ve always struggled to write and think in a linear way. I find it difficult to develop ideas sequentially and planning pieces of writing just doesn’t work for me. I often don’t completely know what it is I’m trying to write when I start the process. Assuming I’ve previously baked ideas in the unconscious mind the kind of writing I enjoy most is quasi-automatic. I prefer to write in fragments and piece them together, with the overall structure being something that emerges through this process:

Another example in a very specific area is given by a client in a follow-up interview as he explains the different quality that has come about in his creative work. It used to be that he tried to be orderly. “You begin at the beginning and you progress regularly through to the end.” Now he is aware that the process in himself is different. “When I’m working on an idea, the whole idea develops like the latent image coming out when you develop a photograph. It doesn’t start at one edge and fill in over to the other. It comes in all over. At first all you see is the hazy outline, and you wonder what it’s going to be; and then gradually something fits here and something fits there, and pretty soon it all becomes clear – all at once.”

Carl Rogers – On Becoming a Person Pg 152

I find this immensely enjoyable and blogging is the apotheosis of it for me. However in the last couple of years, I’ve taken this too far and I’m trying to reintroduce structure into the process. Overly-enthused by the discovery that I can write pretty endlessly about subjects that I’ve thought a lot about, I submitted a series of journal articles that were basically 7000 word blog posts. The responses weren’t actually that bad but they were uniformly requests for major revisions and the experience made me realise that I need to introduce much more discipline into my academic writing and this is what the Artefact Cards seem to be helping with already. I need to develop ideas in a more sustained way, producing more tightly argued and well integrated scholarship, without sacrificing the creative side of the process that I enjoy so much. In other words, I have lots of ideas but I need to learn to develop them much more systematically in order to produce journal articles of the standard which I’d like to.

I’m convinced that the Artefact Cards will prove very helpful in this respect. They introduce another step in the planning process before any kind of writing has taken place: rather than having the ideas churning in the back of my mind, it’s possible to get them out into a physical form where they can be sifted, shuffled and sorted. Here are some other ways I’m using them:

  1. I’m setting myself 500 word writing assignments for Social Media for Academics. I’m going through the book as it currently stands and recording every idea I have about something that should be added in. I’m going to take some of the ensuing cards in my wallet whenever I travel so that I can do brief bits of focused writing on my iPad on the train.
  2. I have close to 100 cards now which record every idea I have about the acceleration of higher education for the project I’m doing with Filip Vostal. I did hit exhaustion point with the cards and that was interesting. I had a very definite sense that “this is everything I think about this subject” and I’ve had no further ideas since (whereas with others, ideas keep occurring to me). It’s presented me with the limitations of what I have to say about the subject but also left me with a more clearer sense of what I do want to say, even if it’s not quite as expansive as I thought it was. I’m going to use these cards to do some prompted blogging on, consult them when planning the conference and use them as a source of ideas in the writing we’re doing.
  3. I have a stack of cards for the large post-doc project that is starting to take shape in my mind. This is much more provisional and I only have 20 or so cards thus far. This has left me aware of how much more work I need to do because the ideas on the cards are very general. I’m going to try and develop these in clusters: going from an idea like ‘cognitive triage’ to develop many other related notions. I plan to add to these over time and hopefully by the time I start putting together a grant application at the end of the year, I’ll have a much more concrete sense of the planned project than I do at present.

These are just a few ideas I’ve had in less than a week of owning the cards. I’m sure I’ll have many more. Though I’ve almost finished a £36 box of cards since then, it’s been a really useful experience and left me with a much greater degree of purchase upon the projects I’m in the process of developing. I doubt this intensity of usage will be the norm but I’m certain that Artefact Cards will be a regular part of my working life from this point onwards.


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