Reverse Outlines

Over the next five posts, 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.

Next we will talk about paragraphs; a sound understanding of paragraph construction can make reverse outlining even more effective.

40 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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