Summarizing Historical Documents:
Effective Structured Outlining


Why do this? Research shows that use of structured outlining can greatly improve your understanding of historical arguments in textbooks and secondary sources. The simple act of classifying each paragraph of a text using the following labels will make you more conscious of the author's argument structures and causal explanations. You will want to avoid outlines that blandly list topics without providing any analytical explanation of why the author thinks things happened as they did, who the author thinks the key people and agents were, what factors the author claims affected decision-making, and what the consequences were.

Major components of non-fiction historical prose: Historians are creatures of custom. They tend to rely on a tightly-defined set of argumentative conventions for explaining the past. These are strategies, recipes or conventions that you can easily learn to identify. Seeking out these conventions when reading will help you to see the historian's intended logical sequencing more clearly.

Stakeholder Problem-Action-Outcome ("S-PAO") Historical narratives often begin with a focus on problems or crises faced by historical figures or stakeholder groups. (Sometimes this will take the form of a SWOT analysis; see below.) Historians will then explore the specific actions they took to address those problems, and then discuss the outcomes or consequences of those actions. This framework can be expressed in a few sentences or paragraphs and will often define the overall framework for a chapter or article.  The historian's explanations for why historical actors took the actions they did and what the outcomes were will often be at the core of their interpretation or thesis. Being careful to itemize or enumerate these problems, actions, and outcomes will help connect you to the curiosity and exploration that make historical scholarship so compelling.

Stakeholder Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats ("SWOT")  Originally developed to help businesses with strategic planning, "SWOT" analysis provides a framework for assessing the conditions faced by historical actors at any given moment. Strengths can include material assets and wealth as well as skills and intellectual capital. Weaknesses typically could involve resource scarcity problems, internal conflicts, power imbalances relative to other stakeholders, and maladaptiveness to the natural environment. Opportunities represent unrealized possibilities that are aligned with stakeholder strengths or that provide means of addressing weaknesses. Threats could be internal to a stakeholder group, challenges from other stakeholder groups, or negative changes to the natural environment. These factors often intersect with various stakeholder identity factors. When reading primary source materials produced by historical actors it can be helpful to undertake a "SOCC-it!" analysis.

Historical Sequencing: Cause, Chronology, and Consequence (The "3Cs") Ultimately, historical thinking is defined by the effort to chronicle and explain change over time.  Questions such as "why did they do that?,"  "What were the critical turning points or tipping points?" and "what came of it?" are a basic part of human storytelling, and essential to the craft of history. Causes can be short or long-term. They can individually motivated or part of larger social and cultural movements. Causal factors can be paradoxical, a single cause triggering different or even opposite reactions from different stakeholders (see SWOT analysis, above).  Chronology involves the causal sequencing of key moments. Historians speak of "turning points," "moments of criticality," "decision-points," "watershed moments," "landmarks" that represent key moments if innovation, change, redefinition, crisis, or resolution. The importance of critical events or new ideas and inventions can be assessed using their significance traits (importance at the time, profundity of change, quantity of people affected, duration of impact, and relevance to our own concerns.) Consequences can be temporary or enduring. Some events and policies can be highly significant as a intermediate way-station to other events and policies. Consequences are closely related to the "outcomes" of S-PAO analysis (see above).

Comparison and Contrast Because historians are interested in explaining the differences in human behavior across time and space, the use of comparison and contrast is a very common argument strategy in historical writing. Most discussions of geography, social structures, political ideology, economic behavior, and religion will involve an explicitly comparative component. The basic historian's question of "what was happening elsewhere at this same moment?" (historical context) is an especially important comparative strategy. Comparison is commonly used along with event sequencing to contrast one era from earlier and later moments.

Description ("The 5Ws"-plus "so-What") Description includes basic 5W facts about who made the crucial decisions, where they were made, what the unique characteristics or traits were, when they took place, why they happened the way they did, and what the lists of important decision-making factors and outcomes (or so-whats) were. In summarizing description you also want to capture the flavors, textures, passions, fears, soul, spirit and characteristic language of the document.