Tag Archives: Revision

Reverse Outlines (from the archives)

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.

Reverse Outlines

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.

Understanding the Needs of Your Reader (from the archives)

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 understanding the needs of your reader. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Scaffolding Phrases; Problem Sentences; Audience and Anxiety; and One-Way Trip.

Understanding the Needs of Your Reader

The third principle that informs my approach to academic writing is understanding the needs of your reader. This principle relies on the simple but surprisingly elusive idea that the reader’s needs are different from our own. What we need to say—especially as we struggle with the early stages of writing—and what our readers will need to hear can be strikingly different. Extensive revision is the solution for this dilemma, but, as we discussed last week, early drafts often confound us. Revisiting those texts with the needs of the reader in mind can be extremely helpful. The reader always has expectations, some that are conscious and others that are unconscious. Conscious expectations come from genre or disciplinary conventions (these are the expectations readers have before they ever read your text) and also from promises made by the writer (these are expectation readers have after reading the early passages of your text). Unconscious expectations are more complex and involve anticipation about the placement of information, particularly within paragraphs and sentences. Strategies for meeting these expectations will be a large part of our focus in this blog.

These three principles will act as the grounding for the more practical discussions of writing that are still to come in this blog. For now I would like to comment briefly on the source that knits these three ideas together: Joseph Williams. Nobody, in my view, has done more to explain the normative dimensions of sound writing or to advance a practical approach to improving our own writing than Joseph Williams. His ideas will be present throughout this blog. So I will conclude with a quote from Williams that expresses all three principles as one idea: “We write the first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader” (Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, p. x). In other words, we must write to figure out what we think; we must commit to writing a succession of drafts; and we must alter those drafts according to the anticipated demands of the reader.

Originally published January 26, 2011

 

Committing to Extensive Revision (from the archives)

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 committing to extensive revision. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Remembering to Edit; Bad News, Good News; Best Laid Plans; A Cut-and-Paste Job; and Between Drafting and Editing

Committing to Extensive Revision

The second key principle that informs my approach to academic writing is committing to extensive revision. Most people will readily agree that more revision would improve their writing. But despite this widespread recognition of the importance of revision, many writers simply do not make revision an essential part of their writing process. One reason for this resistance is that many writers believe their own first drafts to be uniquely flawed; in other words, they think the weakness of the first draft comes from their lack of writing skill rather than from the intrinsic weakness of any first draft. As a result, they have little faith in their ability to fix what ails their writing. I suggest a shift in perspective: rather than worrying that your writing requires an exceptional amount of revision, try thinking that all writing requires a great deal of revision. A first draft must be evaluated as stringently as we can, but there is no need to apply those harsh standards to ourselves as writers. This caution is important since very few people excel at writing first drafts; the tendency towards self-criticism means that the initial draft becomes a source of frustration rather than a valuable starting point. Accepting that the writing process must be iterative makes it easier to understand that writing will rarely be suitable for a reader without extensive revision.

Another obstacle that stands in the way of revision is the fact that many writers are stymied by their own drafts. When I ask students to bring me a piece of their writing with their own changes marked on the pages, those suggested changes are generally tentative and minor. Our own written texts can seem daunting; they may be flawed, but they do possess a certain unity and coherence. Changing them can be more challenging than letting them stand, even with their manifest weaknesses. However, we must be willing to treat our own texts as essentially mutable, as raw material that will eventually take the requisite shape.

Suggesting that good writing requires extensive revision is obviously not particularly novel writing advice. What we all need are revision strategies, and those will come in future posts. For now, my goal is simply to discuss the principles that underlie those strategies. Next we will look at the third of these principles: understanding the needs of your reader.

Originally published January 19, 2011

Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking (from the archives)

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 using writing to clarify your own thinking. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Letting GoThe Discomforts of UncertaintyIs It All Writing?; and Writing as Thinking.

Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking

Over the next three weeks, I am going to discuss the three principles that I see as crucial for strong academic writing. Today’s post will stress the connection between writing and thinking. Next week, we will discuss the essentially iterative nature of academic writing. And, in the following week, we will consider the role that audience awareness plays in the choices we make in our academic writing.

The first principle is using writing to clarify your own thinking. This principle holds that it is often difficult to establish what we think before we have put it down in words. In many cases, we simply do not know what we want to say until we have tried to say it. But if we cannot decide what we want to say without writing and if we cannot write without a solid idea about what we want to say, we are in an obvious bind. For most of us, the best way out of this dilemma is to write. To take a generic example, we may have spent a good deal of time thinking about two connected issues without ever having specified the exact nature of their relationship. When we write about this relationship, however, the demands of syntax will naturally encourage us to characterize the relationship more precisely. The text we create may be provisional, but it will still help to refine our thinking. Even if we are puzzled or surprised or disappointed by what we have written, we are still ahead of where we were before writing.

As a practical matter, this principle translates into a simple call to write more. Rather than postponing writing until you know what you want to say, use writing to figure out what you want to say. While this is generally sound advice, this call for more exploratory writing must come with a warning. Writing more freely means that we will need strategies for working with those provisional texts we create. Writing earlier and in a more exploratory mode often leaves us with texts that are less coherent than we might like. More freedom in the writing process demands more responsiveness in the revision process; the importance of committing to extensive revision will be our next topic.

Originally published January 12, 2011

Is It All Writing?

Today I’d like to write about a topic that I find perplexing: What is the best way to define the term ‘writing’? Should we use writing as an omnibus term for every aspect of creating a text? Or should we use it more narrowly to refer to the initial act of getting words down on paper? Undoubtedly, we all do both, depending on context. Sometimes we think of writing as a soup-to-nuts term for everything from conception to publication, and other times we think of it simply as the moment of composition, distinct from both planning and revising. While I’m far from consistent in my usage, I know that my tendency is to use the term broadly. Is this just a lack of precision on my part or is there a benefit to being inclusive in the way we define writing?

When I hear myself offering a broad definition of writing, I’m often reminded of a mama-and-baby yoga class that I attended when my first child was born. This class was full of babies nursing, babies getting changed, babies learning to crawl, babies being irresistible, but it wasn’t full of anyone doing yoga. And the teacher used to say, as each class would finish without any actual yoga having been practiced, “It’s all yoga!”. Which of course it wasn’t. It was good and yoga is good, but that didn’t make it yoga. In using a broad category of writing, we may be engaging in a similar sort of self-serving inclusivity. Sorting my sock drawer? Well, I can’t write with cold feet and I can’t find my favourite socks and … it’s all writing! In a post last year on not-writing, I talked about ways that not-writing can overwhelm our attempts to write. Needless to say, allowing ourselves to define writing too broadly can hamper our productivity. But is there any benefit to including planning and revising—both obviously essential steps in the creation of a text—in our concept of writing?

To my mind, the benefit of thinking of writing broadly is that doing so may allow us to deepen our commitment to planning and revising. When we think of writing narrowly, we are naturally treating it as separate from planning and revising. And if that separation works well for you, that’s exactly what you should do. For some writers, however, treating writing as a category that includes a broader range of activities can be a helpful strategy for dealing with persistent writing difficulties. If we think of planning as a species of writing, we can then use writing as a way of clarifying our own thinking. When we hold off writing in order to plan what we need to say, some of us will flounder. Being stalled in the pre-writing stage is pretty common in the students that I see; I often see writers who have pages and pages of outlines and sketches, but who don’t feel ‘ready to write’. I’m not saying that writing is the only solution, but I know that writing generates writing. Starting early may confirm that you are in fact not ready, but it also may generate the text that you need or may lead you to a better understanding of your own topic.

Similarly, if we think of revising as species of writing, we can then use writing as a tool for extensive revision. When we think of revision as distinct from writing, we may be less likely to engage in the sort of vigorous revision necessary to move from first to final draft. That is, when writing is seen more narrowly, revision can be seen as conceptually different from writing, making it more likely to become a limited project of cleaning up mistakes. That limitation shuts off the possibility of using rewriting as a way of radically strengthening a text. Overall, if we use early writing as our way of figuring out what needs to be said and late writing as our tool for reshaping our text into the most suitable form, we are more likely to break out of the insularity of our own internal thought processes. The act of writing always anticipates the public. By framing all our writing activities as writing, we may give ourselves greater access to the power of writing to organize and reorganize our thoughts.

Writing and Not Writing

As AcWriMo got underway, lots of people in the Twitter feed (#AcWriMo) were wondering what counts as writing for the purposes of this month of academic writing. This question registered for me when I started my first Pomodoro (using my PhDometer!) and quickly realized that the revise and resubmit project I’ve set for myself this month is going to require a lot of not writing. What will I be doing while not writing? Reading the reviewers’ comments closely; thinking about the editor’s summation of those comments; returning to the original article; making decisions about the relevant literature; and so forth. To turn this article into a new and improved version of itself will take relatively little writing, if writing is defined narrowly. But it all counts in my mind since my goal is to get this article back to my co-author in good shape, not to meet some abstract goal of writing a certain amount.

As I read people’s questions about what might count as writing, I began to see a range of possibilities:

Pure writing: When we put our heads down and just write. This sort of exploratory writing involves turning off your internal critic and allowing yourself to figure out what you need to say. This style of writing is well suited to the sort of productivity goals that many have set for themselves this month. As I’ve said many times in this space, I think this sort of uncensored writing is invaluable. However, it’s also potentially fraught with difficulties, so it’s important to be reflective about the process

Provisional editing: When we look back at the writing we’ve just done to ensure that it will make sense to us later.

Revision: When we return to our writing, ideally with a bit of distance, to make it better. Perhaps we’ll start  with a structural editing strategy, such as the reverse outline. At this point, most of us need to be flexible about what is needed: more time to think; a different organizing scheme; a new framing question; a fresh take on the literature. The work we do here may not look much like writing, but it’s definitely moving the text forward. This is the space where I picture myself hanging out this month.

Not writing: When we do things that aren’t writing during times designated for writing. I see three main categories of ‘not writing’. First, we have simple avoidance: in my case, for instance, an assiduous attention to office organization schemes. Is it really efficient to have my paper clips in a different drawer than my binder clips? And come to think of it, why are my paper clips themselves not sorted by size? Or better yet colour? And off I go. Those things are absolutely hazardous to my productivity, but I never lose sight of the fact that I’m in full avoidance. We all know what our particular avoidance strategies look like. Second, and here is where things get more complicated, we have understandable avoidance: doing the things that have to get done, such as marking, emails, and meetings. We absolutely have to do these things, but we can try to organize our schedules so that they cannot encroach on our writing time. One of the great things about AcWriMo is the inspiration it provides to carve out writing time and to protect that time. The final way that we avoid writing may be the worst because it involves doing things that look very much like writing. Engaging in writing-adjacent activities can readily eat up our writing time. Maybe for you it’s too much reading or maybe it’s too much editing or maybe it’s too much second guessing before allowing the words to hit the page. Or writing something—a blog post, perhaps—other than what you were meant to be writing. Whatever the replacement activity is, it will use up your writing time and even undermine the concept of writing time. We all need to understand and resist our own habitual avoidance techniques in order to preclude the disappointment that comes from not writing.

Overall, I think it’s helpful to approach AcWriMo with two questions: What writing do you need to get done this month? And what do you want to change about your writing process this month? So, any activity can count as writing if it contributes to your overall goal. And it won’t count if it’s the sort of not-writing activity that has tripped you up in the past. AcWriMo is not a gimmick—it’s an opportunity to make writing work better in your life in the long term. All decisions about ‘what counts’ as writing should be made in that spirit.

What Are Your Paragraphs Doing For You?

When I first started this blog, I decided that having key principles and strategies as a permanent part of the homepage would be efficient. I couldn’t properly envision what blogging would be like, but I did anticipate that there would be a tension between wanting each post to stand alone and yet to contribute to an overall picture of academic writing. Having some basic precepts accessible in manageable bits allows me to link back to them without disrupting the flow too much. Those original posts, however, tended to be both general and brief, meaning that certain aspects of the topics were given short shrift. Today, I’d like to talk more about paragraphs in order to discuss an issue that was mentioned only in passing in the original post.

In that post, I listed four things that I wished people knew about paragraphs; the first one was that they are very important. After making that pronouncement, I went on to discuss the other three in more detail: topic sentences, internal cohesion, and the rhetorical significance of length. But my claim about the preeminence of the paragraph was strangely lacking in elaboration. Recently I came across a quote that made me want to articulate my commitment to the paragraph with greater precision. In a post on his blog, Research as a Second Language, Thomas Basbøll made the following claim: “The paragraph is really the smallest unit of scholarly composition.”

This assertion totally stopped me in my tracks. When you spend a lot of time making strong claims about a topic, it can be unsettling to see someone making an even stronger claim. I think of it as my job to say that paragraphs are super important, often in the face of sceptical students. In my experience, most graduate student writers take paragraphing insufficiently seriously. By this I mean that their paragraphs are generally too short, with inadequate attention to clear topics and thematic development. Many novice writers pay too much attention to individual sentences, on the one hand, and the whole text, on the other, leaving little attention left for paragraphs. But in all my exhortations to take paragraphs more seriously, I had never thought to say that they are the smallest unit of composition.

While I don’t ultimately think the claim is true, I admire how decisively it tries to counteract our preoccupation with sentences. I do love a beautiful sentence, but a desire for perfect sentences can be a trap for many writers. Too much attention to sentences—especially early in the drafting process—can slow us down and get in the way of vigorous editing. Most of us need to think more about the way sentences work together than we do because it is sentences-working-together-in-paragraphs that propels the text forward. This notion of the paragraph as the prime locus of narrative development lends credence to Basbøll’s claim. Any given sentence might let us down as readers, but we generally push on in the hopes that the paragraph will give us what we need. When the paragraph fails, it won’t necessarily matter if it is composed of strong sentences.

This valuable emphasis on paragraphs can’t, however, change the fact that sentences are our basic unit of composition. In fact, we have something of a natural mismatch: we write sentence-by-sentence, but readers attempt to digest our writing in bigger chunks. If we’re not intentional enough about those bigger chunks, our readers may have trouble discerning our meaning, even if each sentence is fine. As is so often the case with writing issues, this tension is best addressed through the revision process. Since we do compose in sentences, we are unlikely to shift our attention towards paragraphs during the initial drafting stage. But our editing process should be geared towards the eventual creation of strong paragraphs. One of the reasons that the reverse outline is such a powerful strategy is that it takes the paragraph as its fundamental unit of analysis. Paragraphs are as much engineered as they are written: we write in sentences, but we construct meaning by revising and rearranging those sentences  into coherent paragraphs.

If your paragraphs are underdeveloped or incoherent, it won’t matter so much that they may be made up of perfectly sound sentences. Academic writing is a matter of  accumulation; each individual sentence will only be able to carry so much weight. When we shift some of the focus away from sentence composition and towards paragraph construction, we are taking our reader’s needs into account and giving ourselves a way to increase the coherence of our text. By asking ourselves what our paragraphs are doing for us, we are improving our chances that our paragraphs are doing what our readers need them to do.

The Discomforts of Uncertainty

One of the overarching themes of this blog is my faith in the power of writing as a way of clarifying what we are thinking. Just write. Let yourself write. Make yourself write. Nothing is set in stone. Try things out. Decide later if you want it. Writing alone will tell you whether something needed to be written. While I remain entirely committed to this notion, I think it is important to articulate the ways that this practice can be hard. After the great reaction to my last post on the inherent difficulties of academic writing, I thought it might make sense to devote some time to difficulties we are likely to encounter when trying to put common writing advice into practice. In this post, I’m going to talk about two ways that exploratory writing can be a source of discomfort.

In the first place, exploratory writing can be nerve-racking. Even if we tell ourselves that nothing is set in stone, we may still feel the weight of the chisel in our hands as we write. What if this isn’t what I need to say and what if I’m unable to change it later? ‘Write now, edit later’ may in fact be good advice, but we can still feel as though we are digging our own graves with every new word. At some point in the drafting process, most of us will lose faith in our own abilities as an editor. This feeling of dread requires delicate handling. Good writing rarely feels like good writing. So giving up on a direction in our text because we’ve decided it’s awful is a risky proposition. In general, I try to keep faith with my early drafts, forestalling my own anxiety with the recollection of all those times that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a text that I thought was irredeemable. Of course, there are times when we need to cut our losses. I’ve talked about being willing to get rid of ‘perfectly good writing’ later through editing. But there may also be times when we need to pull the plug on the grounds that the incoherence feels unmanageable. A compromise option is to carry on while using a different font to signal to ourselves that we’re on thin ice. The simplest way of doing this is by using all caps, but a distinct colour or a fancy handwriting fonts (I like Segoe Script) can also work. The important thing is convince ourselves that we’re just spitballing. This lack of commitment can help us to overcome anxiety that might otherwise stop us from writing.

A second difficulty with exploratory writing can be the disorienting experience of returning to the text during editing. We may experience a kind of vertigo caused by a sudden uncertainty about what we actually want to say. Did we mean to say ‘A causes B’ or should it be ‘B causes A’? And how are such fundamental questions even possible? Shouldn’t we just know what we are trying to say? We naturally feel that the decision ought to be made on some bedrock of intention. Which is fine except that the unsaid is often still unknown, especially in the case of writing that is very abstract; the first draft is often the first opportunity to make a decision about meaning. We are rarely in the position of simply ‘writing down what we think’. Instead, we are putting words together in a way that then shapes meaning. Sometimes the editing process can show us—in a helpful way—what we’ve been trying to figure out in our heads. But other times it shows us puzzling statements that we may or may not be able to claim as our own. The demands of syntax or the limits of our ability to craft sentences can lead us to say things that we may not recognize. This experience can be alienating and can easily make ourselves doubt our own capacity as writers.

These two types of anxiety can both be traced back to a decision to use writing as a way of figuring out what needs to be said. To me, the other option—waiting to write until we know what we want to say—would be fine except that it doesn’t work for most people. Without the challenge of writing, most of us can’t articulate meaning. But if we are going to treat exploratory writing as an essential part of our process, we need to be aware of the anxiety it can produce, during both the writing and editing process. That anxiety, while unpleasant, isn’t a sign that things are going badly; on the contrary, the uncomfortable uncertainty of a first draft is often a sign that we are on our way to making the decisions necessary for a successful final draft.

Truth in Outlining

Recently I was working on a reverse outline of a text that I’d been struggling with. As I tried to write the outline, I could feel the basic incoherence of my text; it can be hard to write an outline when the paragraphs aren’t related to one another or even properly unified internally. But rather than let that incoherence become visible by honestly recording what I’d done, I began to nudge the outline into coherence. So I was left with a text that I knew was terrible, but an outline that allowed me to pretend that things were actually okay.

Despite the allure of the illusion that all was well, I did realize that I was cheating. Reluctantly, I returned to the document and did a proper reverse outline that showed what was wrong: necessary transitions were missing and the emphasis was misplaced. I was then able to rework the outline into a more coherent form, and, with that new-and-improved outline, I was able to revise the text. Problem solved. But the experience reminded me how easy it is to collapse the reverse outlining process by skipping the necessary step of creating a truthful and possibly terrible outline. Our immediate goal in reverse outlining isn’t the creation of a coherent outline. First, we must create an honest outline with all the warts showing; then we can craft a better outline that will act as a guide to revision. By collapsing those two steps into one, all I had done was paper over the ugly flaws in my early draft.

Reflecting on this experience reminded me of a recent reaction to reverse outlines from a student. After I described the process of creating a reverse outline, she argued that it was fine for all those people who write coherent first drafts but that it wouldn’t work for her. Clearly I wasn’t doing a very effective job in the classroom that day! First, I’d failed to make it clear that there aren’t any ‘people who write coherent first drafts’. Or maybe there are some, but they aren’t the norm, and aspiring to become one of those people can be a frustrating approach. Better to aspire to write coherent subsequent drafts and to allow those first draft to help you to figure out what you need to say about the topic. Second, I must have done a bad job describing the reverse outline itself because it is, in fact, the perfect strategy for handling chaotic first drafts. But it only works if we tell the absolute truth in the outline and don’t allow wishful thinking to creep in. The point is to find out what you’ve got. If you cheat—as I did above—you won’t be able to see that. Let the reverse outline do the work it was meant to do, even if that means confronting how far you still have to go.

Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines (from the archives)

Over the summer, I am reposting some of my favourite posts from the archives. In this post, I talk about using reverse outlines to improve the organization and overall coherence of literature reviews.

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.

Originally published September 13, 2012