My favourite revision strategy is the reverse outline. Simply stated, a reverse outline is an outline that we create from an existing text; rather than turning an outline into a text, we are turning a text into an outline. Regardless of whether or not 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 outline are simple:
||Number the paragraphs
||Identify the topic of each paragraph
||Arrange these topics into an outline
||Analyze this outline
||Create a revised outline
||Reorganize the text according to the revised outline
||Check for topic sentences and cohesion
Step 1: Number the paragraphs
The basic unit of a reverse outline is the paragraph, so the first step is to number the paragraphs. The simple act of directing our attention towards paragraphs—and thus away from sentences—can be helpful: while writers naturally focus on sentences, we must always remember that our readers are naturally inclined to focus on paragraphs.
Step 2: Identify the topic of each paragraph
Once the paragraphs have been numbered, try to identify a topic in each one. Since you are looking at an early draft, this process will be challenging: not all paragraphs will have topics and not all topics will be expressed neatly in a single paragraph. When doing a reverse outline, it is crucial to remember that you are trying to make evident what is there rather than what ought to be there. In other words, this step is diagnostic. You are simply noting what each paragraph was trying to do, for better or worse. Once you’ve done that, you can observe whether topic sentences can be found and make a note of paragraph length. Again, at this stage, you are observing rather than judging or remedying. Does the paragraph have a topic sentence? Yes or no? And how long is the paragraph? The latter can be recorded in word count or in more qualitative terms as short, average, or long.
Step 3: Arrange these topics into an outline
To create this preliminary outline, you are doing nothing more than listing the topics that you’ve identified, paragraph by paragraph. The crucial thing at this stage is to leave your original text alone and work just on the outline; you are trying to keep yourself away from the muddling effect of the detailed content in your own writing. As an advocate for your future reader, you are trying to see past the detail and look just at essential structure.
Step 4: Analyze this outline
The next step is to analyze this outline, paying particular attention to the logic and proportionality of your internal organization. Understanding the logic involves observing the way elements have been placed in relation to one another. Understanding the proportionality involves observing how much space is being devoted to each element. This step is the bridge between noting what you have and preparing to create something new.
Step 5: Create a revised outline
During steps 3 and 4, you’ve been working with a list of topics; in step 5, you will have to transform that list into a genuine outline. Now that you can see all the topics and can start to see possible weaknesses in either your ordering of points or your allocation of space, you are ready to create a better outline for the text. You have the best of both worlds at this point: you know a great deal that you didn’t know before you started writing, but you are still working at a level of abstraction that will keep you from getting bogged down in the details.
Step 6: Reorganize the text according to the revised outline
Here comes the hard part. In steps 3, 4, and 5, you’ve been working with the outline. Now it’s time to use this new outline to transform the text. And unless you are an incredibly confident writer, you will find this scary. That initial draft—even with all the flaws that you’ve just uncovered—will generally have a real hold on you. That hold comes from the legitimate fear that you might take away existing coherence and flow without being able to replace it with something better. At this point, you need faith, faith in the new outline and faith in your ability to transform your text into something better. Practically, what you do here is move the text around to reflect the organization of the new outline. The result, at this point, can be pretty rough. If you take a few paragraphs from the second half of a paper, for instance, and move them up to an earlier section, they can’t possibly sit right. The time for massaging everything into a cohesive whole will come, but for now you must trust that the new outline has allowed you to devise a new and improved configuration of your text.
Step 7: Check for topic sentences and cohesion
The final step is to pay attention to the way your new paragraphs work. The new and improved configuration will be, needless to say, both better and worse. It will be better because it will reflect your careful and clearheaded analysis of what it needs to do; it will be worse because it will still bear too many traces of its earlier self. To get a head start on the next stages of revision, you can identify whether you have topic sentences early in your paragraphs and whether those paragraphs use their length effectively to develop clear topics. While there will still be lots of work to do, you can turn to that work secure in the knowledge that you have created an effective structure for this text. Polishing a text is time-consuming work, but it is easier and more efficient when you are working on a text that you know to be well-organized and well-proportioned.
In sum, the reverse outline is an effective strategy because it can create an objective distance between you and your text. Reverse outlining gives us a way into a text that might otherwise resist our editorial efforts. We often find our early drafts disconcerting: we know they are flawed but changing them can still seem risky. A reverse outline can give us purpose and direction as we undertake the valuable project of restructuring our written work.
This post describes the first of five key strategies for strong academic writing; I have chosen these five simply because they are the ones that I most frequently turn to in my work with students. In the four other posts, I discuss paragraphs, transitions, sentences, and metadiscourse.
For more on using reverse outlines, you can consult these other posts: