Reverse Outlines

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:

1 Number the paragraphs
2 Identify the topic of each paragraph
3 Arrange these topics into an outline
4 Analyze this outline
5 Create a revised outline
6 Reorganize the text according to the revised outline
7 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; verbs; and subjects.

For more on using reverse outlines, you can consult these other posts:


47 responses to “Reverse Outlines

  1. Heather Fitzgerald

    Thanks for this post Rachael. I love reverse outlines myself and often use them with my students, but it’s always interesting to see how other people describe and employ them. I might clarify some of my own practices using ideas you’ve posted here.

  2. thanks for the great post. It seems similar to creating a functional outline at the outset though I’ve also had my students produce a functional outline after the text has been written.

    A colleague of mine told me of a peer review step you can use that’s similar to this. He has his students chop their paper into its paragraphs and asks the peers to see if they can figure out the correct order. Students then get a sense of the function or lack thereof of each paragraph.

    • Thanks, Andy. I had a quick look at your blog–your use of screencasting for writing feedback is amazing! I am always struggling with how inefficient written comments are when compared with oral comments. You have found a fabulous way of blending the two.

  3. I wanted to echo Rachael’s comments – I often do reverse outlines, but in a sloppy way. Your ideas add rigour to the process – thanks!

  4. Thank you Rachael for outlining this process so succinctly. I started doing this kind of thing just last year – though not in any formal sense – and have had great success. Though, having this step-by-step list will help me save a good amount of time in assessing my paper and making the mods quickly. I look forward to your future posts!

  5. Writing is one of my greatest fears and I really feel stupid about what I have written.And I am not even a native English speaker. My paragraph are jam-packed with multiple ideas and there seems to be no logic to my flow.

  6. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this method. I think this will help me more than anything I’ve read about outlining. I hate prospective outlining and tend to do it as I go along, which probably isn’t too efficient, but worked for me. Since starting drugs for adult ADD this problem has greatly abated, I am so focused, and so much more productive. I love this idea of reverse outlining. I found you through a link from The Thesis Whisperer. Thank you SO MUCH!

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  10. Thanks so much for this. I struggle badly with my writing style (hence starting a blog to have somewhere to practise). Your post gives me a usable, concrete, tool to help me improve.

    Congratulations on your 100th post – I got to this one via it.


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  13. Thank you, Rachel, for explaining how to do reverse outlining. And for listing it as the first key strategy. I had to face the hairy beast of a revising a terrible seminar paper, and I decided to use your blog to do it. I did the reverse outline, and it was phenomenally useful. I plan to do it for future writing.

    Anyway, I find your blog really helpful and can’t wait to put the other tips into practice. So, thank you!

    • Thanks, Casey! You may also be interested in this post, which demonstrates how to use a reverse outline in a little more detail. Good luck with your paper!

      • Oh wow. The post you linked to is spot on. So relevant to the problems I’m having right now. Thank you so much!

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  25. Hi- any tips on the mechanics of how to do this? i.e. are people just using numbering in word? converting to a table? I’d like to use this method for providing some peer feedback to a colleague but seems time consuming mechanically to do.

    • I normally just number each paragraph (either on a hard copy or electronically). If I’m working on a hard copy, I just create a numbered list of paragraphs on a separate piece of paper. If I’m working electronically, I do the same thing except in a separate document. My goal is to end up with a one page outline that conveys the existing structure and content of my early draft. I hadn’t thought of the mechanics of this as time consuming, but I’d certainly be interested if you come up with a streamlined process! In my experience, it doesn’t take long to create the initial reverse outline; the time consuming part is trying to figure out what I’ve got and how I can make it into something more suitable.

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  38. Hi Rachael, thanks for the post. I recently started using Scrivener, and I’m wondering i you have any tips on how to reverse outline using this program? I could just use the Comments function, but I have so many comments and footnotes already that I worry the RO topic sentences would just get lost among the clutter. I feel like there must be some kind of tool or functionality for this built in to Scrivener that I’m unaware of. Any thoughts (if you use Scrivener)?

    • I wish I had something to add, but I’ve never really used Scrivener. I bet if you posed the question on Twitter, you’d get some helpful responses. All the best with your writing, Abi!

  39. As a developmental editor, I almost always create an outline from existing text, but I never knew this was called a reverse outline — so thanks for providing the name for it! I usually don’t delve down to the paragraph level, but I can see how this might be very useful if the text I’m editing is really poorly organized.
    I do wish all authors were familiar with this technique, because it would help them get their manuscripts better organized before they are given to an editor. This in turn would make my job easier and free me up to put more effort into refining the writing instead of struggling to understand and bring order to a poorly organized piece of writing.

  40. I would love to hear your advice further elaborating on points 5 and 6: revising the outline and reorganizing the text. I’ve done a reverse outline, found some of the logic gaps, and have revised my arguments. I now, however, feel somewhat overwhelmed by the scattering of notes, multiple marked up drafts (by myself and committee), and new content I’ve started to add but that doesn’t flow yet. What advice do you have for pulling this all together and producing a fresh outline and text? Thanks from a Uni of Toronto grad student 🙂

    • My first thought is that I’m not sure how workable it is to create a reverse outline from multiple drafts. Maybe it would help to treat the reverse outline stage as somewhat self contained? That is, working just from your latest draft, create a new outline (step five). Then use that outline to reorganize the existing text (step six). Once you’ve got that text into its new (rough) shape, you could work on factoring in your various notes and committee comments. The other approach would be to hold off on the reverse outline until you’ve incorporated all those things into your existing draft. What I wouldn’t do is try to make the move from step five to six of the reverse outline while consulting multiple versions of the text and other sundry materials. That sounds way too hard! Please let me know if you have any questions about what I’ve suggested.

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