On the Need for a New Rhetoric: Part II — The Architectural Model of Writing

In my last post, I offered an assertion without exposition: That writing on a computer/mobile device screen has significantly changed the model that we use for creating arguments and composing the form they take because writers have moved from an architectural model of production to an agricultural form of production. In this post, I will explain what I mean by an architectural model of composition. 

Readers of a certain age will remember research in a time before the ubiquity of the internet. In such days of yore, the well-equipped researcher went to a library armed with pencils and pens of varying color, at least one notebook, and a stack of 3” x 5” cards gathered together into multiple stacks held together by rubber bands.[1]

For those of you too young to have ever seen such a thing, or too old to remember the system’s details[2], here are how all of these pieces worked together.

To keep things organized, you started with a research outline — one that roughly laid out what you were looking for. This was as much a plan of action as it was an organizational system. It had a hypothesis rather than a thesis — the idea or argument you were testing in your research.

Once in the library, you went to a card catalog — a series of cabinets holding small drawers that contained cards recording bibliographic information. One set of cabinets was alphabetized by author. Another set of cabinets held similar cards but they were organized by subject. Each card also recorded the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal number that corresponded to the shelf location of the book in question.[3]

If you were looking for more current material, you consulted a Periodical Index of Literature, which was published annually and contained within it entires for articles published in magazines. With that information, you could request from the reference librarian a copy of the bound volume of the periodical or microfilm or microfiche to place into the readers. 

For each source you referenced, you carefully recorded the full bibliographic information onto one note card and added it to your growing stack of bibliographic cards — which, of course, you kept in alphabetical order by author. Each card was numbered sequentially as you examined the source. 

These were the days before cell phone cameras and inexpensive photocopiers. You took handwritten notes in a notebook and/or on index cards. For each note you took, you noted the number of the source’s bibliographic note card in one corner[4] and its place in your organizational outline in another corner. To keep things as neat as possible, each card contained a single quotation or single idea. Following the quotation or note, you listed the page number. Finally, you would write a summary of the note along the top of the card to make it easier to quickly find the information when flipping through your cards.

You did this for every note and every quotation.

At the end of the day of research, you bundled up your bibliography cards in one stack and your notes in a second stack — usually in research outline order though some preferred source order.

When your research was complete, you created your thesis, which was a revision of your hypothesis based on what you had learned in your research. You then created an outline for your paper.[5] Once the outline was ready, you went back through your notecards and recorded the paper outline in a third corner of the card — usually the upper right hand corner. (For those looking to handle revisions to structures or make certain pieces of information stand out, a separate color could be used to write things down.) You then stacked the cards in the order of your outline and proceeded to writing. As you came to each point you wished to make, you hand wrote (You would not have typed a first draft.) the information or quotation, noting the source where and when appropriate. 

Then you revised and edited until you were ready to type the paper. If you were among the fortunate, you had a typewriter with a correction ribbon or had access to correction strips. If not, you got used to waiting for White Out to dry, lest you be forced to retype the entire page.

From this description, I hope you can see why I refer to this system as an architectural model. You gather raw material, shape the raw material into usable units of standardized sizes, then assemble them according to a kind of blueprint.

I suspect you can also see the sources of many of our current digital methods. To put it in the language of contemporary computing, you created a analog database of information that you had tagged with your own metadata by searching through sources that were tagged and sorted by generic metadata. The only differences here are that the database of information is stored on 3” x 5” cards rather than within spreadsheet cells, for example. 

So long as computers were fixed items — desktops located in labs or, for the well to do, on desks in offices or dorm rooms, this model persisted. With the coming of the portable computer, however, a change began to occur and writers shifted from this architectural model to an agricultural one without changing many of the underlying assumptions about how research and writing worked.


  1. Those exceptionally well prepared carried their index cards in small boxed that contained dividers with alphabetical tabs.
  2. I hasten to note that this is what we were taught to do. Not everyone did this, of course.
  3. What happens next depended on whether you were in a library with open stacks or closed stacks. In open stack libraries, you are able to go and get the book on your own. In closed stack libraries, you fill out a request slip, noting your table location, and then wait while the librarian retrieves the work in question. The closed stack model is, of course, still the norm in libraries’ Special Collections section.
  4. Some preferred to include the name of the author and title of the work. This could, however, become cramped if it bumped into the heading of the note if you placed it in one of the upper corners. For this reason, most people suggested placing this information on one of the lower corners of the card. I seem to recall using the lower right corner when I did this and placed the note’s location within the organizational outline in the lower left corner.
  5. Some continued to use notecards in this step. Each outline section was written on a card, which allowed them to be shuffled and moved around before they were cast in stone. 

Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at Academia.edu.