How (and why) to do a rhetorical outline

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A rhetorical outline lets you extend your understanding of what a text or visual image says into how it is working rhetorically (what it does). You’re probably used to summarizing what a text says (what its content is); in a rhetorical outline, you also examine why the text says particular things – what the writer’s purpose for including particular content is, how that particular content contributes to her overall goals for the piece of writing. And as you should know by now – if you don’t know it already, learn it now – the most important key to understanding something you read is figuring out exactly what the writer’s overall purpose is. And the most important key to succeeding in any communication is to be very clear in your own mind what your basic purpose is.
A rhetorical outline includes a says statement that summarizes the content of a stretch of text (usually a paragraph, but sometimes more or less), and a does statement that sums up how that particular piece of text functions within the whole.
Does statements should not repeat content but should focus instead on the purpose or function of that content in relation to the overall purpose of the text as a whole. Here are some sample does statements:
• Offers a story to illustrate the previous point

• Argues against an alternate way of looking at the central problem the whole text examines

• Provides statistical evidence for the central argument of the text

• Tells a joke to increase the writer’s ethos

• Provokes the audience into anger against the opposite side of the argument

• Explains the author’s personal connection to the issue being discussed

Using does and says statements to create a rhetorical outline will help you see how a text works at the micro level, paragraph by paragraph, section by section. This kind of analysis is particularly useful as a way to begin a summary as well as to focus an analysis or critique of an author's rhetorical methods. It will also help you more consciously select

the tools you want to use in your own writing.

Sample Does-Says Statements

To illustrate, here are sample does and says statements for the three opening paragraphs of the chapter six of Kirk Savage’s book Monument Wars. The overall purpose of the chapter is to argue for the significance of Maya Lin’s design of the Vietnam War Memorial.

Here are the three paragraphs we’ll analyze:
The VVM [Vietnam Veterans Memorial] was the capital's first true victim monument – a monument that existed not to glorify the nation but to help its suffering soldiers heal. Maya Lin's design has bequeathed to us a therapeutic model of commemoration that has become the new common sense of our era but has also opened up difficult questions

that have yet to be resolved, or even considered.
The VVM was a first in many respects. It was the capital’s first comprehensive war memorial, dedicated to all U.S. troops who served in a national war rather than a subset from a particular branch, division, or locality. The memorial was more profoundly national in cope than any of the previous memorials erected to the heroes of the Civil War or the world wars. Even the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, which included remains of the dead from World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam and served as a national focal point for ritual services on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, did not satisfy the felt need for comprehensive recognition of the nation’s servicemen. The VVM was the first—and is still the only—war memorial in the nation that claims to include the names of all the US dead. Maya Lin's sunken black granite walls were designed, first and foremost, with this intention—to carry the names of the fifty-eight thousand US servicemen who lost their lives in the war. The explicit healing purpose of the monument drove this logic of comprehensiveness. Once born, though, the new type could be adapted to other purposes. The Korean War Veterans Memorial and the World War II memorial are also comprehensive, though quite different in tone and content from Lin's prototype; neither one attempts the reproduction of individual names at the heart of her design.
Dedicated in 1982, Lin's walls have since become the most talked-about, most written-about monument in American history. The memorial is now so popular a fixture on the Mall that we can forget how radical her proposal once was and how close her critics came to stopping it altogether. Lin herself has called her work an antimonument—a negation of traditional monumentality. She brought into material form an attitude that had long been articulated in modernist circles. The British art historian Herbert Read, writing in the late 1930s in the aftermath of the catastrophes of World War I and the Spanish Civil War, had declared that in the modern world "the only logical monument would be some sort of negative monument." A negative monument, he assumed, would have to be "a monument to disillusion, to despair, to destruction.” Lin, however, found a way to break this logic that conflated negation and disillusion. She did not intend her memorial to deliver a message of protest against war (as did Picasso's huge mural Guernica, about which Read was writing). The break with tradition was more fundamental: her memorial avoided delivering any message. The meaning was to be generated by the viewers themselves, in their experience of the place.
And here are possible says and does statements for these paragraphs:
Paragraph 1

What it Says: VVM is first true victim monument, designed to help soldiers heal

What it Does: Announces the topic of the chapter (VVM), raises reader curiosity by hinting at unanswered questions about it

Paragraph 2

What it Says: VVM is a "first" in a number of categories

What it Does: Asserts the importance of the VVM: It was new/different, it remains unique, it has been influential [a very common move early in texts: This is important]

Paragraph 3

What it Says: VVM is "fundamental" break with tradition because it delivers no message

What it Does: Introduces the idea of the “antimonument” (important later in the text), continues arguing the importance of the VVM, compares it to Picasso’s Guernica.
Rhetorical outlining will help you understand how a particular section of a text functions to serve the writer’s overall goal. It’s also an excellent planning and revision tool for your own writing. What’s your overall goal for your piece of writing? What do you need to do to reach your goal? What particular rhetorical moves could you possibly make? While you’re writing a draft, asking yourself what you want your text to do next will often help you figure out what to say next. Asking yourself what specific sections of your text are doing and saying—and what you want them to do and say—will help you focus on both content and organization as you revise.
At first you may find that creating a rhetorical outline is more difficult than you expect because it’s a new way of reading for you, and because it forces a slow rereading of a text's distinct parts. But that slowed-down analysis is the purpose of the technique. It is designed to prompt thought that goes beyond scooping up surface meaning. Rereading this way will take you to a clearer understanding of the argument and structure of the text you are examining.


adds details about … asks us to sympathize asks the question(s)

cites an expert compares contradicts tells a joke

demonstrates describes dramatizes (i.e., tells a story about)

draws a conclusion elaborates evaluates explains

gives details informs interprets introduces

opposes predicts proposes qualifies

rebuts reflects repeats speculates

suggests/hints summarizes supports shows the writer’s own feelings

gives an example provokes an emotion gives background info

demonstrates the writer’s qualifications to talk about the topic

-- And there are many, many other things that a text can do, as you’ll see when you start examining texts in this way, and consciously planning your own texts in this way.
Of course, to make a complete statement, you have to include exactly what the paragraph proposes, or describes, or suggests, or gives details about, or explains, or what emotion it provokes in the audience, etc.

(Adapted from Bean, Chapman, and Gillam, Reading Rhetorically, Pearson, 2012 – who are in turn drawing from the work of Kenneth Bruffee)

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