Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about reverse outlines. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines; The Perils of Local Cohesion; and Truth in Outlining.
Over the coming weeks, I will discuss five key strategies for improving academic writing. I have chosen these five simply because they are the ones that I most frequently turn to in my work with students. I have ordered them roughly from global to local, starting with a strategy for overall coherence and ending with common sentence problems. It is generally more efficient to treat broader structural issues before spending time on individual sentences; the structural edit, done right, can dramatically change a text. You do not want to expend energy on sentence-level improvements before making some broader decisions about what will stay and what will go.
The first strategy—and definitely my favourite—is the reverse outline. Reverse outlines are outlines that we create from an existing text. Regardless of whether you create an outline before you write, creating one after you have written a first draft can be invaluable. A reverse outline will reveal the structure—and thus the structural problems—of a text. The steps to creating a reverse outlines are simple:
1. Number your paragraphs. (Paragraphs are the essential unit of analysis here; next week we will look at why paragraphs are so important.)
2. Identify the topic of each paragraph. At this point, you can also make note of the following:
a. Is there a recognizable topic sentence?
b. How long is the paragraph?
i. Does the topic seem sufficiently developed?
ii. Is there more than one topic in the paragraph?
3. Arrange these topics in an outline.
4. Analyze this outline, assessing the logic (where elements have been placed in relation to one another) and the proportion (how much space is being devoted to each element).
5. Use this analysis to create a revised outline.
6. Use this revised outline to reorganize your text.
7. Go back to your answers in 2a and 2b to help you create topic sentences and cohesion in your paragraphs.
This strategy is effective because it creates an objective distance between you and your text. A reverse outline acts as a way into a text that might otherwise resist our editorial efforts. As we discussed when we looked at revision, we often find our drafts disconcerting: we know they are flawed but making changes can seem risky. A reverse outline can give us purpose and direction as we undertake the valuable process of restructuring our work.