Old School Tools Rule (Sometimes)

I use modern technology a lot. Some digital tools make the writing life a whole lot easier, from word processing’s track changes to email and Dropbox and voice dictation and more. But I still cling to a few old-school tools that newer technologies haven’t replaced. Here are three I have found irreplaceably beneficial.

The Bring-Up File

An analog tool that has helped me make the most of my time and efforts: a “bring-up” file (sometimes called a tickler file). It’s a simple but genius system comprised of 43 file folders I keep in my desk drawer. Twelve are labeled with the names of the months and the rest are numbered 1 through 31. So, each morning I pull out that day’s numbered folder, which contains various papers and other items that need my attention that day, such as, say, a birthday card to send, a cleaning sheet for my paper shredder, a gift card to use for date night with my wife, and a bill I need to pay and mail that day (though most of my bills are digital, some still have to be mailed). The folder also contains any paperwork remaining from the previous day, which allows me to start every day with a clean desk. At the beginning of each month, I divide the contents I’ve been filing away to remember during that month into the 31 numbered folders, and the process begins again.

Post-it Notes and Sheets

I use a lot of Post-it notes in the course of a week or month. Some mark portions of the book I’m reading that I want to copy into a journal or into my Bible Reference Index (see below). Or I might stick a note on my next flight itinerary so I don’t forget to pack an item. I might stick a note on my steering wheel so I remember a stop I wanted to make. And so on. I’ve also used the giant sticky easel pads to brainstorm and outline books and chapters, lining them up along my office wall so I could get a sense of the big picture, so to speak.

Bible Reference Index

The other old-school tool that’s been a huge help to me over my years is a box of 60-some dividers labeled with the books of the Bible. (See the above picture.) Between those dividers are 3 x 5 index cards; each card has an abbreviation of the Bible book in the upper left corner and a chapter number in the upper right corner. Over the years, as I’ve read books—both fiction and nonfiction—and come across an allusion or reference to a verse or passage in the Bible, I’ll mark it (with a Post-it) and then later record that book’s title, author, and page number on the corresponding card in my Bible Reference Index. This system helps tremendously when I’m writing an article or book chapter, as I can pull a card and see quickly what my reading over the years has said about the Bible portion on which I’m writing. On occasion it’s made me look so much smarter than I am (which isn’t a hard task, I grant you, considering my starting point).

I recommend old-school tools like these to my writing friends, as they’ve helped me to achieve and maintain some semblance of order in my writing life. (Every little bit helps, you know.)

How about you? Do you use any old-school tools in your writing life?


37 Responses to Old School Tools Rule (Sometimes)

  1. Avatar
    Terri August 5, 2020 at 5:23 am #

    Wow!! I loved reading this! What great systems in place! Thanks for sharing!

    • Avatar
      Karen Sargent August 5, 2020 at 5:41 am #

      Oh, I’m such a nerd! I don’t have a bring-up file or a handy dandy Bible reference index, but now I want to start both! Mostly I’m annoyed that I didn’t think of that myself! LOL Post-it’s run my life.

  2. Avatar
    edie Melson August 5, 2020 at 5:44 am #

    Sometimes I forget what a genius you are! Thank you for sharing these ?

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    J.D. Wininger August 5, 2020 at 5:45 am #

    Now, if I can just break the habit of using Courier 10 font so that everything looks typewritten. 🙂 Sometimes, old methods still work best. Well said sir.

  4. Avatar
    Kristen Joy Wilks August 5, 2020 at 5:56 am #

    I use a lot of sticky notes and when I’m stuck on a scene, I write it out by hand on a piece of paper. Also, the good old-fashioned walk sure helps get the brain working right.

  5. Avatar
    Bonnie Bajarin August 5, 2020 at 6:14 am #

    I have used a three ring binder for decades with tabs from A-Z. I write Scriptures I want to keep by subject in the binder alphabetically. For instance, knowing God goes under K with the Scriptures that meant something to me on the page. Same with wisdom, faith, fear of the Lord, etc,

    It has become a resource for me when I write tracking what I have been learning spiritually over the years visually showing my invisible spiritual growth.

  6. Avatar
    Lila Diller August 5, 2020 at 6:27 am #

    Right after I graduated from college, I accepted an offer to stay on staff there as a personal secretary. I loved the work! One of the main ways they stayed organized was a tickler file.

    I do something like your Bible reference Index but digitally. 😉 I have a master document for each book I’ve ever reviewed (since I started on Goodreads 3 years ago), and I have a document for topics I might blog about. So a quote referencing Phil. 4:4 would go in the Joy document.

    I do still use paper tracking for my blog and social media stats. I have a pdf someone gave me for each month, and I print them off and keep them in a file folder. At the end of every month, I (try to remember to) pull out the next month’s sheet and write down all my subscribers, followers, and income made. I could just fill in a spreadsheet or something, but I need something physical to remind myself.

  7. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 5, 2020 at 6:42 am #

    Old school is my bread and butter
    (‘scuse me, now, the stove needs coal);
    while some think I am a nutter
    old school fuels my very soul.
    Keep out eye for my submission;
    it carries not some new malware,
    but help the bringer on his mission
    to bring it up each step and stair
    for gladly I eschew computer
    (man lives not by bytes alone),
    for the sharpest, straightest shooter
    needs hammer, chisel, flats of stone,
    and the shipping agent I employ
    weeps in budgetary joy.

    • Avatar
      Lisa August 5, 2020 at 8:45 am #

      I love your statement – man lives not by bytes alone!

    • Avatar
      Joyce Erfert August 5, 2020 at 8:51 am #

      Way to go. When everyone else is mourning the loss of their stuff in digital-world, we will still be writing away.

    • Avatar
      Linda Riggs Mayfield August 5, 2020 at 9:59 am #

      Priceless, Andrew! I can just SEE the pick-up guy for the shipping agent, heavy laden and bent backwards to balance the load, and I can’t stop grinning.

      • Avatar
        Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 6, 2020 at 9:50 am #

        Linda, I’m delighted that you enjoyed this (and love the way you describe the image)!

    • Avatar
      Glenda August 5, 2020 at 10:22 am #


      Methinks some modern methods
      May well be best employed
      For tethering endangered Benjamins
      Then I am overjoyed. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Judith Robl August 6, 2020 at 3:39 pm #

      In the genealogical world, paper documents are called “ephemera”. But there is nothing more ephemeral than an electronic byte which can be erased in a millisecond. I’m a great believer in paper.

  8. Avatar
    David Jung August 5, 2020 at 6:55 am #

    I use a lot of sticky notes while working.

    My other go-to organization tool is the Outlook calendar (which I sync to all my other devices/computers via Google calendar). All my reminders/to-do are all available at almost any time or place. Based on my interaction with the younger generation, Outlook can be considered an old-school tool at this point. 🙂

  9. Avatar
    Brennan S. McPherson August 5, 2020 at 7:06 am #

    I’m 29 and I still find that plotting/scene design on note cards yields a superior result. Also, I draft now on a Alphasmart Neo 2 word processor, rather than a computer. It’s greatly increased my word count per hour due to eliminating distractions. And proofing a printed piece always yields a different result than proofing on a digital screen. It’s invaluable when doing large-scale edits. Keeps your mind clear and uncluttered.

    Although I have pre-ordered the Remarkable 2, an e-ink writing device, and hope it can replace note-cards, etc. The Remarkable 2 also automatically converts hand-written text into digital text, hopefully eliminating the need to type out written material. But it’s expensive…

  10. Avatar
    Janice Laird August 5, 2020 at 7:33 am #

    When I research, I take notes in longhand. I know – time-consuming. But the old-school process really helps me retain information for when I write a scene. I understand the details of setting, weather, and situation so thoroughly it comes out much better.

  11. Avatar
    Jan Johnson August 5, 2020 at 7:43 am #

    That first idea was brilliant! I’m starting that today!

  12. Avatar
    Lisa Acuff August 5, 2020 at 8:41 am #

    Thank you for sharing these old school techniques. As I read your careful, thorough descriptions of each tool, I thought – Wow! I felt excited and eager to try at least one of them.

    I am so grateful you chose to share them with us.

  13. Avatar
    Joyce Erfert August 5, 2020 at 8:48 am #

    I love the Bring-Up file system. I need to do that. I have files for scriptures, quotes, websites, various writing projects. Office Max is my Disney World. I live in fear of the day when office supply stores disappear when everyone and everything is digital.

  14. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver August 5, 2020 at 8:57 am #

    Oh, wow. The thought of a clean desk every evening has been beyond my scope of imagination. Thanks for these helpful suggestions.

  15. Avatar
    Lynn D. Morrissey August 5, 2020 at 9:39 am #

    Excellent tips, Mr. Hostetler, and sometimes traditional tried-and-true is still best. What do you do with all those sticky notes? I have those, sometimes jot a note on a scrap of paper if my planner isn’t near. My problem is that I don’t process them! What is your remedy? Do those sticky notes go into the tickler file for a measured way of handling them, or do you just set aside each day to process them?

  16. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. August 5, 2020 at 9:57 am #

    Thanks for the tips, Bob.I use a month-at-a-glance calendar to help me keep track of my activities. It doesn’t crash and doesn’t require any electricity.

  17. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield August 5, 2020 at 10:10 am #

    Has your experience in the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the effectiveness of any of your successful methods, Bob? I’m a sticky-note queen, and even write some notes with the sticky side on the side instead of the top, so I can affix them to the side frame of my laptop at eye level for particularly important reminders. The strategy has worked well for years. But in spite of highly colorful (deep pink), highly visible reminders like that, I missed two online meetings last week. I’m now apparently not nearly as aware of my visual environment as usual and that’s very disconcerting!

  18. Avatar
    Glenda August 5, 2020 at 10:34 am #


    While I may not be the sharpest, I know how to whet the stone:

    “Give me six hours to cut down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” -Abraham Lincoln


    PS To change or not to change in Tracking-that is the question! 🙂

  19. Avatar
    Mary Anne Henry August 5, 2020 at 10:47 am #

    I love Dragon because I talk faster than I type. It saves me so much time. I am reading a new book that is called “The Greatest Words Ever Spoken”. It is all the words of Jesus divided by categories. It is powerful to read the Bible this way.

    • Avatar
      Dinah August 5, 2020 at 10:51 am #

      What is Dragon?

  20. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott August 5, 2020 at 10:49 am #

    I am writing a book proposal. I use a clipboard and notebook paper for a list of items I want or need to cover–including the required proposal sections. When I’m satisfied I have the right idea in the right place, I check it off the list. My clipboard and computer can go where I go. The combination of typing on the computer and tracking on paper is best for my old-school brain. I suspect the tasks run on separate neurological tracks, keeping my trains of thought from crashing into each other.

  21. Avatar
    Dinah August 5, 2020 at 10:50 am #

    Index cards. I scribble a note or do a very quick sketch to help me remember an unfamiliar word, a phrase that catches my attention, a quirky or otherwise intriguing person, place, or overheard convo…just anything. To keep them flowing, I don’t bog down the concept with dates or categories for filing. They’re too random anyway. They are great for thinking or writing prompts. Other than that, I gave up a Rolodex years ago and have regretted it ever since.

  22. Avatar
    Deena Adams August 5, 2020 at 11:46 am #

    The Bible reference index is such a cool idea! Thanks for sharing. I don’t use any old school writing techniques because I just started seriously writing about two years ago! LOL

  23. Avatar
    Victoria Anderson August 5, 2020 at 1:01 pm #

    Dear Steve,
    I wholeheartedly agree with you about using “old school” filing system. It’s a great idea and I will start doing the same. However, I’ve always been a lover of hard copies. Maybe it’s my age, but I like to have access to my writing in hard copies.

    I receive your newsletters regularly and have found them to be very helpful.
    Thank you!

  24. Avatar
    Judith Robl August 6, 2020 at 3:42 pm #

    Thank you, Bob, for reminding us that electronics are not all there is. I’ve long aspired to be as organized as these three tools would make me. I guess I’ll have to try yet again. Especially the Bible reference index.

  25. Avatar
    Hope Ann August 8, 2020 at 12:11 pm #

    I love these ideas so much, especially the first and last one. I love new ways of organizing things. Right now, I organize most of my stuff via Scrivener which I then sync between my computer and my phone. My writing is organized there, but I have a bunch of life stuff and lists–goals, priorities, ideas about life.

    I want to try some of these methods though. There’s just something so much cooler about having things you can touch physically.

  26. Avatar
    Francheska Graham August 17, 2020 at 10:34 pm #

    I am an old soul by nature, so your article really speaks to me. I know that most of these tricks and tools can be done by a laptop or even in my phone, but the romantic in me will always rely on these old tools.

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