Outlining With Sticky Notes

The Note Card system is a powerful tool for outlining that I have mentioned previously here.  It is also a system that for various reasons I have not invested much time in.  That is about to change.

Part of the reason this blog exists is to give me a vehicle to practice researching and writing, as well as discussing topics that matter to me.  The Note Card system is used by two prolific authors that I respect, each who use it to generate very detailed works.  My hesitation has always been the fact that they use physical cards.  I travel too much to carry extra things around, so need an electronic solution.  But the programs I tried were too heavy; it’s more about the program rather than the writing.   While I want to up my research and outlining game I also need a tool that is easy to use, lightweight, and dare I say, low tech.

Enter Microsoft Sticky Notes

First introduced as the “Notes” gadget in Windows Vista, the stand-alone application Sticky Notes came into its own with the release of Windows 7.  Being a big list maker I gravitated towards the app immediately.  Along with my other favorite program, Microsoft Notepad, I like the minimalist solution that these programs offer.  They do what they are supposed to do and not much more.  Though each has a number of tricks and hidden features that allow the “power user” to really make them sing.

As an outlining tool for short articles Sticky Notes is perfect.  The notes stay on your desktop so are only an Alt-Tab away when writing.  They can be reorganized however you like.  You can change the colors of different stacks of cards.  Web addresses are linked and can be opened with a Ctrl + Click.  The card size is adjustable and  you can create an infinite number of them.  And an infinite amount of text can be added to a single note.

There are drawbacks however.  The biggest is the fact that the file holding the information isn’t easily saved in the traditional sense.  The contents of your Sticky Notes are saved in a hidden .SNT file which is not easily manipulated.  This makes saving your specific project notes a little tricky, but is easily fixed once you understand how the system works.  The second drawback is that if you delete a note it is gone.  You don’t save your work when finished, your work updates constantly in real time.  So if you inadvertently make a change it is for keeps.

There are a number of other note carding programs available on the market.  Most notably is Scrivener, which is a powerful writing tool.  I own a copy.  But for whatever reason I have always gravitated towards the lightweight 8-bit solutions.

All pictures in this article were edited with MSPaint.

Getting Started

You may already use Sticky Notes in your daily computing.  I use it extensively.  So to push the boundaries of its intended use like we are about to do, first we need to be able to separate our project notes from our day to day notes.  As mentioned, Sticky Notes don’t save like a regular file but this is easily circumvented once you know how.

To access the file location:

  1. Click the windows icon on the lower left side of your screen
  2. Type %appdata% into the search bar

The gives a single result – the Roaming folder.  Open this up.

There are a number of folders and files inside.  You need to first open the “Microsoft” folder.  Inside that you will find the “Sticky Notes” folder.  So the full file path should look like this:

C:\Users\[YOUR USER NAME]\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Sticky Notes


Create a shortcut

To quickly access this location in the future I recommend creating a shortcut.

  1. Right click on the words “Sticky Notes” in the address bar of the folder and select “Copy address as text”
  2. Navigate to the location where you want your shortcut, a dedicated Writing folder maybe, or just your desktop
  3. Right click, scroll down to “New”, then select “Shortcut”
  4. This will open a box asking you for an address.  Right click and paste the address you copied in step No. 1

The .SNT File

Inside the Sticky Notes folder we find the SNT file.  This is where all of your Sticky Note info is saved.  If you delete this file, then reopen Sticky Notes, a new file is created.  As you write on and delete notes this file is updated in real time.

You can open the file using Notepad to see what the stored info looks like.  Just don’t mess around in there.

The main issue is that we need to be able to create different files for different projects.  But the program won’t allow you to create new .SNT files.  This is easily fixed by renaming the working file.

First close the Sticky Notes program by right clicking the icon in your task bar and stopping it.  You can’t copy or rename the file with the program running.  Now right click and Rename the file.  “Sticky Notes Article.snt” for example.

When you open the Sticky Notes program it will only read the information from the file named “Sticky Notes.snt”.  So to access the notes for this article we need to change the name back from “Sticky Notes Article.snt” to “Sticky Notes.snt”.  By manipulating your file names like this you can save and re-open multiple different projects.

Outlining With Sticky Notes

When using a note card system to do an outline you’ll require three different card types:

  1. An Index Card
  2. A Source Card
  3. Information / Idea Cards

The Index Card – The index card is where you note down the specifics of how you are organizing your cards.  As part of the system is that you differentiate topics by grouping cards by color, the index serves to remind you what those color mean when you come back to it the next day.  (You are writing every day, right?)

The Source Card – This is where you list the sources of your information.  When writing this article I sourced all of my information from the internet, so it consists of links to the pages.  If you are getting material from other sources then you would write that instead.  This info will be used to create your footnotes when required.

Information Cards – The bulk of the cards created will contain the info and ideas you will use.  In a traditional note card system each card has only one idea or snippet of info listed.  This mostly holds true for the Sticky Note card system as well, but as there are no physical space limitations it is possible to include multiple ideas under one sub-topic.

Pro-tip: Ctrl+Shift+L is the ‘List’ command.  Hit it once and it will create a bullet list.  Keep tapping ‘L’ and it will cycle through different list formats.  Just one of the many useful shortcuts.

Formatting the cards is simple.  In a traditional system you would write the topic at the top of the index card.  Here we organize topics by changing the note colors.  There are six colors to choose from when you right click on a note.  If you find that you require more topics then you can always revert to writing the topic down as well.

Pro-tip: when you click the ‘+’ button on a note it will create a new blank note in the same color as the note that you clicked on.

If the idea you are listing on a card comes from a source then you need to include that on the note.  This is easily handled by writing the number of the source in parenthesis at the beginning of the note.  If the information came from a book, then also include the page number.

Example: (1. pg. 17) would mean that you got the info from page 17 of the book listed on your source card under source number one.

The Workflow

Time for an example.  This is the workflow that I used to outline and ultimately write this article.  I’ve added a few screenshots to help you visualize things.

Step 1 – Brainstorming

Coming into any piece of writing I’ll typically have a number of ideas that I want to use.  So I open a fresh Sticky Note and write one of them down.  Then another.  I do this until I run out of steam.  You can always add a new note later when another idea pops up.


Step 2 – Index Card

When the bulk of the ideas are listed I’ll start thinking about what topics or sections they need to be divided into.  This can be as simple as Beginning, Middle, End, or more more specific as the case requires.  For this article there were four main topics:

  1. Introduction
  2. Info about the Sticky Notes program
  3. Explanation of a Note Card system
  4. Example of my workflow

Each of the topics is listed on the card and the color of the information cards is changed to match.  The color coded notes are now grouped together and can be loosely ordered.

Step 3 – Source Card 

The research phase.  At this stage I go through the cards one by one and see which ones require hard evidence.  I had a pretty good idea where most of my sources were already, so I went to those pages and copied the addresses into the source card.  Next I add the source number to the related  information card.

If researching a larger work you will continue adding cards and ideas as you find them.


Step 4 – Organize

Next you organize the cards into the final order that you will write your piece.  This physical re-ordering of the cards is what makes the note card system so effective.  You can  see how your work is laid out and easily make changes.  Robert Greene also uses cards of different colors so can quickly make sure that each of his topics are covered in every chapter, just by looking at the color distribution.

Being the first time that I used this system it took a while to figure out the best layout to interact with the cards.  While I wanted to go with a vertical stacking I found that I had trouble switching between cards.  In the end I went with a staggered horizontal stacking.  This allows you to see a bit of each note so you can click on it and bring it to the top of the pile.  Just be careful that you don’t hit the delete button!  Deleted cards can’t be recovered.  Or can they?


Step 5 – Write!

Writing your piece should now be a simple matter of starting at note number one and working your way through sequentially until you reach The End.  Once I am finished with a note I found it helpful to move it on top of the previous one.  This helps clear a bit of real estate on the screen and gives a visual indication of your progress.

Once you’ve completed your first draft all that is left is the final revision.  I’ve got some tips to help during the revision process here and here.


An Effective Approach to Outlining

With the conclusion of this exercise I can safely say that the Sticky Note system is a success.  It integrates well into my workflow and has all of the benefits of a traditional note card system, without the physical space requirement.  This is important for me as I don’t have the luxury of a single space where I do all of my work.  I’m a Road Warrior these days so do my writing where and when I can.

I am very interested to hear other peoples thoughts on this, especially if you have any hacks to make the system more effective.


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