Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines

After a recent discussion of reverse outlines on Twitter, I had a flurry of visits to my reverse outlines post. The Twitter conversation concerned reverse outlining as a way to help with literature reviews, so I thought it might be useful to spell out that connection more explicitly. A reverse outline is a great way to address the most common flaws of lit reviews: poor organization and poor articulation of research goals. These two issues are closely connected, but I am going to discuss them in turn.

I’m sure I don’t need to describe how poor organization bedevils lit reviews; the sheer volume of the material makes organizational difficulties near inevitable. The organizational scheme that you must devise is also a genuinely conceptually complex task. It is not like organizing your sock drawer; organizing your lit review requires a deep understanding of your project and its connection to the existing literature in your field. While a reverse outline won’t magic away difficulties, it will help you to confront the limitations of your early drafts. The beauty of a reverse outline is that it prunes away the distracting details, allowing you to see the underlying structure.

Let’s look at a sample reverse outline in order to get a sense of how this might work. As you likely know, the unit of analysis in a reverse outline is the paragraph. We number each paragraph and then ask ourselves some basic questions: What is the topic? Is there a topic sentence? Does the whole paragraph have thematic unity? For a more detailed explanation of this process, you can go back to the original reverse outlines post.)

Sample Reverse Outline:

1. The research into X
• However, there are also a few sentences on Y.
• No topic sentence found (although this might be okay if the whole paragraph functions as an introduction to a particular topic).

2. The historical background to X
• No topic sentence found.
• The paragraph is purely chronological with no thematic starting point.

3. The work of Singh and Johnson, who also study X
• No topic sentence found.

4. The main study that Singh and Johnson were responding to
• No topic sentence found.

5. The work of Gordonberg who works on Z
• There is a clear topic sentence on Gordonberg, but no mention of Z or any link to what came before.

When we look at this reverse outline, the absence of detail helps us to see some basic problems. The truth is that many of us could have found those problems in the original if we’d read it. But chances are that we would have missed those problems in our own writing, the familiarity of which tends to lull us into a kind of editorial somnambulance. In my experience, that sleepy acceptance is often accompanied by an underlying uneasiness, but discomfort alone doesn’t break the spell. A reverse outline can be like a bucket of cold water. Often my first reaction to my own reverse outlines is ‘huh?’. Why did I put those things there? Those points are in the wrong order! That is the completely wrong organizational approach to that material! It may not be as bad as all that, but the evident weaknesses of the outline give me a sense that whatever I was trying to accomplish may not yet be working on the page. I can then start to rework at the outline level without being distracted by familiar chains of words or complex details.

Revised Sample Reverse Outline:

1. The importance of X, Y, and Z to my research project
• This paragraph will serve as an introduction to the subsequent discussion of X, Y, and Z, so may not have an obvious topic sentence.
• This paragraph may be short or long—or may even need to be broken into multiple paragraphs—depending on how difficult it is to establish the relevance of this topic to your research.

2. The research into X
• This could be more than one paragraph, of course, depending on the amount of material.
• The first version had a historical background paragraph; if that topic does warrant its own paragraph, think about whether you will be giving similar historical background to Y and Z. Another possibility would be that you need a combined historical background to X, Y, and Z; it is very common to speak about the historical background in a more unified way before dividing the field into its important sub-fields. As a simple example, consider the following sequence of sentences: ‘Serious scholarly attention to [topic] began in …’/‘For the next twenty years, scholars tended to …’/‘By the mid-1980s, however, a serious rupture began to emerge about …’/‘In subsequent years, the scholarly approach was often divided into X, Y, and Z’.
• What about Singh and Johnson? Were they included as an example of the work done on X? Are other thinkers being included? Why are they so important? Is the study that they are responding to important for you or is it just important for them?

3. The research into Y
• Try to follow whatever pattern you have established with your discussion of X; the length can vary, but the reader will expect X, Y, and Z to be treated in a roughly parallel fashion. If that parallel structure proves hard to sustain as you are writing, you may need to revisit your initial structural scheme.

4. The research into Z
• The discussion of Z should follow the broad pattern established in the discussion of X and Y.

As you’ve probably noticed, the modifications in the reworked outline also address the second common flaw in lit reviews, the tendency of authors to obscure their own research goals. Singh and Johnson may be significant researchers in their own right, but the reader can always go directly to them for their research. What the reader needs from you is a clear explanation of the way that the existing research serves as a backdrop or source or inspiration for your own. The reworked outline is stronger because it is better organized but also because it links each paragraph into the broader agenda of the author.

In their valuable book Helping Doctoral Students Write, Kamler and Thomson give a great collection of student metaphors for lit review writing (pp. 32–34). In my thesis writing course, I usually read those metaphors aloud to students and ask which one most closely represents each of their experiences. My favourite is the image of someone trying to put an octopus into a bottle. A reverse outline can be a way to convince your octopus to coordinate all its limbs in service of your research plan.

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6 responses to “Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines

  1. Rachael, this is an excellent post. I really like the introduction, esp the sock drawer! The one thing I’d point out is that you are dealing with the literature review as part of a thesis or dissertation, not with a stand-alone review of literature on a particular subject.

    • Thanks, Sarah. You are absolutely right–I am talking about a literature review that is in service to a broader project (not just a thesis or dissertation, but also a research article or a even a research proposal). I’m not talking about a stand-alone review of literature that might be assigned in a class. I couldn’t see an easy way to work in that clarification right now, so this will have to suffice for present. Thanks for pointing that out!

  2. I was one of those who discovered your blog via twitter posts on reverse outlines, and will keep an eye on this blog! Was already doing a version of this, but it reminded me to use it yesterday when I was editing a chapter of 20,000 words down to a 8,000 word article . After getting rid of the obviously unnecessary stuff, the reverse outline let me see the shape and dynamic of a nascent article, so I also like it for helping to uncover a different version of a thesis for a different format.

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  5. This is excellent material, simply put forward. Can be used at M level or even by school students!

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