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Outlining Books

December 28, 2008

Have you ever read a book and forget most of the argumemt even before you finished it?  One little thing that helps me is to make some significant margin notes.  Not long notes, but a short phrase that sums up the argument on a page or section.  This also forces you to know the argument enough to summarize it in a short phrase.  This may slow your reading down a little – but you take the good with the bad.

However, outlining a book forces you to own the argument of the entire book.   I have a close friend who was mentored by David Wells at Cordon Conwell Theological Seminary.  One day he entered his office and saw rows and rows of large spiral notebooks.  My friend asked what they were, and Wells replied that it was all the book that he had outlined.  If he really wanted to own the argument of a book, he outlined it.  He wasn’t able to recall everything in the book, but he could simply open his outline and review very quickly what the book was trying to get across and what arguments the author used.  Getting the big picture.  This is, at first, a very daunting task.  But here are a few tips that make it a little more attainable.

  1. Make notes in the margins of your book to signify main points of sections, chapters, or the entire book, to signify where a break in arguments are, and to signify where subordinate points are.  If you make these strategic notes, they will be easier to find when outlining.
  2. Outline the book as you go.  Outlining will be less of a daunting task if you don’t wait until you are done with the book.  Also, the arguments are fresh in your mind.
  3. Use the half or quarter page at the end of the chapter to make a summary statement.  This shouldn’t be long, only two or three phrases that sum up the entire chapter.  This should include the main point and any implications from the main point.  This will help when you outline.
  4. Make your outlines brief.  This should only a tool to jog your memory, not reproduce the entire contents of the book.  If the outline is as long or longer than the book you have read, then you have gone to far!  Make one brief statement for each main and subordinate points.
  5. Read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler.  He has a great chapter on outlining a book.  The book itself has helpful tips on reading a book at several different levels.
  6. Puritan books are the easiest to outline, but they pretty much outline it for you (especially John Owen).  However, their arguments divide and sub-divide so much, an outline is needed.  This does not mean they are the easiest to understand, but just to outline.
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