How to write an outline: now with decimals

I have updated my page on How to Write an Outline to reflect my growing preference for decimal rather than alphanumeric outlines. Alphanumeric outlines repeat letters and numbers, so the reader must flip back and forth to figure out if a point labeled “3” is II.B.3 or III.A.3. Decimal outlines solve this: it’s always point 2.2.3. Also, decimal outlines offer an easier check on an overgrowth of points. Rather than tell students they may not use letters and numbers higher than V, E, 5, e, etc., I can simply tell them to write the outline without any digits over 5, anywhere in the structure.

I have also removed the reference to The Craft of Research, since the 4th edition does not include the useful advice that appeared in the 3d. In its place, I refer readers to the Purdue OWL page on Types of Outlines and Samples. And I’ve changed the way I outlined Wells’s introduction.

I’ve kept the old version online for fans of Roman numerals.

Critical reading of short texts

Even street signs can have meanings distinct from their explicit message.

Dan Malouff, “Here Are Five Street Signs That Really Mean the Street Design Is Wrong,” Greater Greater Washington (blog), November 1, 2017,

This sign really means we’re happy to throw a guilt trip at outsiders, but not happy to give our children a sidewalk.

Image by Magnolia677 on Wikipedia licensed under Creative Commons.

Selingo: Employers want college graduates who can write

Jeffrey J. Selingo, “Why Can’t College Graduates Write Coherent Prose?,” Washington Post: Grade Point, August 11, 2017:

Extensive writing is rarely assigned in many college courses because it’s labor-intensive, raising the workload for students and professors. Students don’t understand why they need to write five-page papers, let alone 20 pages, given that many of them won’t write much more than PowerPoint slides, emails, or one-page memos once in the workplace.

But training for any activity in life requires a level of practice that usually exceeds the tasks we will need to handle later on. This time spent on a task is sometimes called the 10,000 hours theory — that it takes roughly that amount of practice to achieve mastery in any field. Not every college graduate needs to be a novelist, but if college students become competent writers who draft clear prose, then they’ll also be able to compose anything on the job, from PowerPoint slides to reports.

Textbook Writers Use Passive Voice to Exonerate Enslavers

Ellen Bresler Rockmore, “How Texas Teaches History,” The New York Times, October 21, 2015,

In the excerpts published by Jezebel, the Texas textbooks employ all the principles of good, strong, clear writing when talking about the “upside” of slavery. But when writing about the brutality of slavery, the writers use all the tricks of obfuscation. You can see all this at play in the following passage from a textbook, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, called Texas United States History:

Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.

Notice how in the first two sentences, the “slavery wasn’t that bad” sentences, the main subject of each clause is a person: slaves, masters, slaveholders. What those people, especially the slave owners, are doing is clear: They are treating their slaves kindly; they are providing adequate food and clothing. But after those two sentences there is a change, not just in the writers’ outlook on slavery but also in their sentence construction. There are no people in the last two sentences, only nouns. Yes, there is severe treatment, whippings, brandings and torture. And yes, those are all bad things. But where are the slave owners who were actually doing the whipping and branding and torturing? And where are the slaves who were whipped, branded and tortured? They are nowhere to be found in the sentence.

“First, Learn How to Write.”

Adam Bryant, “Kathleen Finch: Get Better Ideas With a ‘Pile On’ Meeting,” The New York Times, September 5, 2015.

What advice do you give to new college grads?

I give two pieces of advice. First, learn how to write. No matter what you’re studying in college, be a great writer because it can stymie your career if you’re not. And second, get your foot in the door. If you have a dream job or a dream place to work, take any job that will get you in as long as you’re reporting or visible to important people.

Then raise your hand. Work hard. Be the person about whom everybody says, “She’s next, she’s the one who can do it.”