Creating an annotated outline from a text

Outlines and rough drafts

Many writers prefer an outline to be a casual construction, but sometimes writing needs a more extensive master plan. Assignments that ask for an annotated outline help us learn to read deeply. As a side benefit, analyzing a published writer can teach us how to construct a more thorough planning outline for our own writing.

Joseph M. Williams, an English professor and linguist at the University of Chicago, wrote Style:  The Basics of Clarity and Grace.

His topic (writing style) and focus (the basics) are in the title of the book. The audience is identified in the publishers’ tag line: “the guidebook for all who want to write well.” The backbone of Williams’ outline is found in the table of contents:

Lesson One    Understanding Style
Lesson Two    Correctness
Lesson Three    Actions
Lesson Four    Characters
Lesson Five    Cohesion and Coherence
Lesson Six    Emphasis
Lesson Seven    Concision
Lesson Eight    Shape
Lesson Nine    Elegance
Lesson Ten    The Ethics of Prose

I won’t do the entire book, but I’ll use Lesson Two, “Correctness,” to show you how adding the headings and sub-headings reveal more of his outline:

II. Correctness
      A.  Correctness, Choice, and Obedience 
      B.  Three Kinds of Rules 
           1.  Observing Rules Thoughtfully
      C.  Two Kinds of Invented Rules
            1.  Folklore
            2.  Options
      D.  Some Words that Attract Special Attention
      E.  Hobgoblins
      F.  A Special Problem: Pronouns and Sexism
           1. Gender and Language

Headings provide an overview of what each section contains. To explain the idea contained in the heading, seek out the author’s own words from the opening and/or topic sentences and add them to each subtopic. (This bite-sized information is shown below in purple text.) Now the Lesson Two portion of the outline looks like this:

II.  Correctness 
      choice is important, but in some matters, we have none
      A.  Correctness, Choice, and Obedience 
            correctness has become equated with obedience
      B.  Three Kinds of Rules 
            many grammarians have confused choice with rules
            1.  Observing Rules Thoughtfully
                 you need not follow every mindless rule ever made
      C.  Two Kinds of Invented Rules
            1.  Folklore
                 errors in style that look like rules
            2.  Options
                 not rules, per se, but complements of “real rules”
      D.  Some Words that Attract Special Attention
            confused words that get noticed by careful readers
      E.  Hobgoblins
            usage that has become the object of zealous abuse
      F.  A Special Problem: Pronouns and Sexism
           formal rules can occasionally create biased language
           1. Gender and Language
               common sense demands that we not offend readers

While you won’t keep these “bites” in the final version of the outline, creating them can help keep the main point of each section in focus while the outline is being created. This first draft of the outline eliminates the need to keep all the various chapters and their sections topmost of mind.  (Because who has that kind of memory?)

Finally, explain the key information as a short paragraph. Here’s an example of how that would look if we zoom in on the final point in Lesson Two:
 
      F.  A Special Problem: Pronouns and Sexism
Grammar rules specify that pronouns must agree with their antecedents. Williams says this is a difficult rule to apply when a pronoun is “singular in grammar” but “plural in meaning” or when the pronoun indicates no gender. For example, …
           1. Gender and Language
There are choices that avoid offending readers, but some of them are imprecise, ambiguous, abstract, or intrusive. Williams says language evolves to solve communication problems. He illustrates that with a discussion of “the plural they as a correct singular” and predicts it will become the standard.

Preparing annotated outlines of books has the advantage of having the subtopics given to you as chapters, headings, and subheadings. However, if you are asked to create an annotated outline for an essay that contains no headings, build the outline by first puzzling out the basic subtopics (e.g., three points of view, or two different uses, or four peoples’ experiences), divide each into main points, and then finish by adding in descriptions and primary examples.

Reverse outlines can also help with your own writing. Building one lets you review the “fit” of the points you make and helps you judge whether the are organized to flow from one to the next.

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