Chapter III. The Making Of Outlines
§ 11. There lie before me three little books of about a hundred pages each. They are all good: Mr. Deland's "Imagination in Business," Mr. Edwin Balmer's "The Science of Advertising," Mr. Humphrey Bobinson's "Simple Explanation of Banking Customs."
But only one of them has a table of contents. Mr. Robinson puts all his topics before you on one page, thus: 1, General remarks. 2, The choice of a bank. 3, Opening a bank account. 4, How to deposit. 5, Your account on the bank's books. 6, Stopping payment of a check. 7, How the bank collects the checks you deposit. 8, The clearing house. 9, A certified check. 10, Protesting notes, drafts, etc. 11, The loan collection department. 12, The loan department. 13, The New York exchange. 14, The method of issuing bank-notes. 15, The so-called special privileges of banks.
There they are, spread out before you. They are an advertisement of what Mr. Robinson's book contains. You can see at a glance whether the topics interest you. You can see whether they make a progressive treatment - elementary matters first, complex matters last.
Mr. Deland's book is in nine sections, and each begins with a sentence which shows that he was not without a plan. But there is no table of contents, and there are no chapter headings. Probably he modestly thought that it was hardly worth while to print an outline. Perhaps the publishers thought the book would be more artistic without one. Possibly he expected that only very mature people would read him. If so, he should not have used so attractive a title. But I ask you if you would not prefer a good table of contents and some good chapter headings? Suppose that Mr. Deland had given us nine brief sentences, terse, artistic sentences which would have presented an outline of the whole argument. You would remember those. They "needn't give away the little secrets that lure the imagination on. They could be so constructed as to suggest and recall the argument after it was read.
Mr. Balmer has no table of contents for his sixty-four page book, but strews his topics along in italics. He uses numerals to the extent of making five divisions of his book, but these divisions have no names. Some of his topics are complete sentences, such as would help to form a brief of his argument if they were grouped on one page. Others are not statements, but mere phrases. This lack of system makes against the highest efficiency.
It seems to me that no book, however brief, should be printed without some sort of outline, in the shape of a table of contents or a summary. Novels, perhaps, might be excepted - though perhaps the novelist might be required to file somewhere the outline that he worked from. In the bad old days of the novel, a Dickens or a Trollope would begin to write and print a story with no idea of how it was coming out. There were giants in those days, and they accomplished prodigies. But only giants should imitate giants.
As for beginners, they all need outlines to work from. No matter how short the piece of writing is to be, it is a gain of time to think out the bony structure of it before you begin. Suppose it is only a business letter. The three or four main topics of that letter should lie as clear as daylight in the writer's mind before he puts pen to paper or opens his mouth to dictate. If those topics lie before him on a piece of paper, so much the better. The person who gets the letter need not get the outline too - though letters have been written that needed a table of contents before them and a long index after them. Glance at the excellent letter on page 139, where the topics appear in the margin.
The topics of a composition should be determined beforehand, and so should the scale of treatment. This should be figured out in number of words. You are to write, say, an account of a shop-visit. The whole is to be a thousand words long, and you know how many words you write to a page. What part of that shop-visit is to get the most space! and how much? Unless you have practiced that sort of calculation, here is what will happen. Yon will begin on too large a scale, and take five hundred words to tell about the journey to the shop. Three hundred more will go to general narrative and description of what you saw. Another hundred will dispose of all the special processes except the most important one. That will get the remaining paltry hundred, when it deserved perhaps five times as much.
If the composition is to be of considerable length, it is a good idea to jot down from time to time the thoughts that occur to you, just as they occur. You can do this upon cards or slips of paper of uniform size. Then when the necessity for actually composing comes, you can arrange the slips in order. This is composing thoughts - "putting together" in the larger sense.
But even before this you should block out your subject mentally into a few main divisions, and grasp your theme as a whole and in its parts. That is mental analysis.
§ 12. If it is well done, it may result, first, in some narrowing of the topic as originally conceived. This is the time to decide on a title - for everything, even perhaps a letter, should have a title. This is the time, because the title should be your keynote all the way through, and if it is too broad it will lead you to attempt too much. "Errors" is vast and vague. Even "Office Errors" is a big subject. For a short article narrow it to "Clerical Errors." Perhaps that is too broad - it is if you know much about it. Narrow it again and you have, "How to Check Clerical Errors" - the title, by the by, of a recent article in System. At least, so the cover says. The actual article is headed "How I Check Clerical Errors," and the "I" shows that the writer is speaking only for his own business, which happens to be watch-making. He has narrowed the subject far enough to make it serve as his theme throughout. Notice that "Errors" is one word, while "How I Check Clerical Errors" is five words. The narrower your topic, the more words it demands. The writer struck a happy medium. He did not say, "How to Check Errors in the Watch-making Business"; that is too long. He made the "I" symbolic.