Mark-up: Annotating Text for Item Writing

bluebeard annotated

Consider this Part II of how to avoid writing superficial items.

I thought it might be helpful to give a real example of what annotating text for item writing might look like. I started out by doing what I usually do: printing out a page and marking it up. But! My handwriting is bad. Not quite doctor-writing-a-prescription bad, but bad enough to be occasionally illegible. (Here I used SnagIt, which I love, but have used only for the purpose of making video feedback for item writers and not ever for this purpose, hence the abominable mess.)

So here is an excerpt from “Bluebeard’s Ghost” by William Makepeace Thackeray.

Regardless of this mess, you can still see what I intended to note:

  • This is Thackeray’s retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale.
  • There’s an identifiable narrative voice: “as may be imagined.”
  • The phrase “deprived of her husband” shows that Mrs. Bluebeard is not just grieving, but feels aggrieved at the loss.
  • Mrs. Bluebeard holds her brothers responsible for her husband’s death.
  • She contrasts her unpleasant, “vulgar” family with her “kind friend” (her husband).
  • Her “profound grief” is revealed by the black bombazine, crimped caps, and weepers.
  • hyperbole: “not a widow in all the county…”
  • alliteration: “confined in crimped caps”
  • above-grade-level vocabulary: odious=gr11

Notes I didn’t get to yet, but I would have if I had kept on:

  • Brothers are called “rude cornets of dragoons.”
  • The accident resulted from the brothers’ “interference” in “family differences”– a domestic spat, maybe?
  • The confinement of the widow (“Of course, she saw no one…”) means she is doomed to spend her time only with her sister, “whose company was anything but pleasant.”
  • Hair=symbol of feminine beauty; must be covered by a widow in mourning.
  • Mrs. Bluebeard’s response to her brothers’ conversation: “What did she care…?”
  • above-grade-level vocabulary: venerable=not listed
  • The phrase “venerable blue hairs” is an allusion to the fairy tale, and is a play on the phrase “venerable gray hairs.”
  • Mrs. Bluebeard’s descriptions of her late husband: “departed lord,” “spotless justice of the peace,” “generous landlord,” “kind friend”–all of which are in violent contrast with the Bluebeard of the original fairy tale

I would annotate the whole passage, and then I would see what I had to work with for the items. There’s so much here! It’s a gold mine.

Here are some possible questions I would consider:

  • What evidence from the story shows that Mrs. Bluebeard experiences “profound grief” at the death of her husband?
  • Contrast Mrs. Bluebeard’s feelings for her late husband with her feelings for her family.
  • How was Mr. Bluebeard different from his wife’s brothers?
  • What caused Mr. Bluebeard’s death?

That’s just to start.


A note of caution: This story, as delightful as it is, would never appear in an assessment, because of all the references to–ahem!–death. Not to mention the original tale with all the ladies dead at the hands of that “kind friend.”

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