Tag Archives: Reverse outlines

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.

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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.

2012 in Review

Happy New Year! I’ll be back with a new post next week, but in the meantime here is a quick overview of 2012. The nice people at WordPress gave me a very pretty year-in-review page that is probably of interest to me alone: how many people looked at various posts; how they got there; and where they were from. But you—especially if you are new to reading this blog—may be interested in a quick recap of what we talked about last year.

Last year started with a bunch of posts on comma use: commas to punctuate for lengthpairs of commas to signal unambiguously that the sentence is being interrupted; and commas in relative clauses, a perennial topic of writing consternation. Apparently these three posts really took it out of me; I have yet to return to the topic of commas, despite the fact that I had promised two additional posts on commas! I’ll have to revisit this issue in 2013.

As always, I talked a lot about the editing process: letting go of ‘perfectly good writing’; deciding what to do when you have deviated from your own best laid plans; managing the perils of local cohesion; satisfying the reader’s desire for a one-way trip through your writing; and engaging in rough editing to bridge the gap between drafting and editing.

I took a break from writing about writing to reflect on my very own blog; in light of an article about the benefit of multi-authored blogs, I argued for the value of a single-authored blog.

During the summer, I did a podcast interview with GradHacker, in which we touched upon a lot of the issues central to this blog.

Over the course of the year, I looked at lots of general writing issues: the value of the injunction to put it in your own words; the pernicious impact a fear of error can have on the writing process; the way a reverse outline can help to structure a literature review; and the strengths and weaknesses of building a text through cut-and-paste.

Academic Writing Month provided the opportunity for lots of great reflections on the writing process; once it was over, I wrote about my own experience and the importance of reflecting on our own writing practices.

At the end of the year, I was interested in how graduate students ought to orient themselves towards dominant writing practices. Is graduate writing self-expression or adherence to form? And how should graduate students orient themselves towards established style conventions? I’m fascinated by this topic, so I’m sure I’ll return to it over the coming year.

Finally, here are a few links posts that I thought touched on important issues: caring about writing without succumbing to peevishness; the balance between disciplinary and professional training for graduate students; the value of writing early; and avoiding the temptation to compare insides with outsides.

Thank you all for reading—I feel very lucky to have such a great audience.

Next week I’ll talk about how to structure and introduce an introduction.

The Perils of Local Cohesion

In my recent post on literature reviews and reverse outlines, I mentioned how doing a reverse outline can snap writers out of a certain complacency vis-à-vis their own writing. As I said there, this complacency rarely entails contentment, but it does impede our own editing efforts. One source of this editorial inertia is the presence of ‘local cohesion’. Even a piece of writing with serious structural issues may work at the local level. And if we lack strategies for macro-level editing, we may continue to refine a piece of writing by improving its local coherence without addressing larger issues.

I recently encountered a problem of this sort in a piece of my own writing. I realized—actually, it wasn’t so much realizing as it was being informed by an astute coauthor—that a paragraph wasn’t saying what I needed it to. I had missed this problem over time since the paragraph itself was internally coherent. Even once I saw the problem, however, I found it hard to devise a solution. The local cohesion had been deepened through many rounds of edits, which meant that the basics were very much in place: the paragraph had a discernible topic; each of its sentences appeared to address this topic; and the sentences had perfectly good flow between them. It was very hard for me to see how to go about making the necessary changes.

This may sound like I am just preparing to say (yet again!) that you’ll never regret doing a reverse outline. And I am saying that: getting at the skeletal form of your writing will definitely help you diagnose problems even when local cohesion is obscuring your editorial insight. However, I’m also acknowledging the difficulty of acting on that diagnosis. Once we have figured out what is wrong, we need to be tough on ourselves. It takes a good deal of intestinal fortitude to break up a piece of writing that is even partially working. It is so often the case that changing our writing has a significant ripple effect. Even if you can identify the particular point at which things go astray, you can’t just fix that point; you’ll also have to do the unsettling work of changing the supporting cast. Ultimately, editing our own writing is an act of faith. You have to be believe that if you sacrifice local cohesion to global coherence, you are starting down a path towards a better piece of writing.

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.

Best Laid Plans

I’ve talked a lot in this space about the importance of extensive revision. Today I’d like to go a bit deeper into one of the tensions that can emerge during that revision process. As I go through a piece of writing with a student, we often find significant discrepancies between the plan articulated at the outset and the subsequent text. Obviously, such discrepancies are common, especially if we are liberal in our use of explicit signposting in our early drafts. But this observation leads to an interesting question: when the plan and the actual text start to diverge, what should we do?

Let’s take a generic example. Imagine an introductory passage of this sort:

Our discussion of this issue will revolve around three key themes. We will begin by discussing X. This treatment of X will lead us into a consideration of the importance of Y. The obvious tension between X and Y will necessitate a discussion of a third theme, Z.

This piece of writing will now head into a discussion of X. Everything will run smoothly until X doesn’t in fact lead into a consideration of Y. Instead, it may lead into a discussion of W. This introduction of W then leads away from the notion of a tension between X and Y and necessitates a discussion of the way W and X affect of our central issue. Once editing begins, we’ll have to choose between our roadmap and our actual text.

Depending on the state of our editing abilities, we will either register this disjunction consciously or just feel a general discomfort with the text. If you tend to fall in the latter camp, try something like the reverse outline to help you figure out what might be triggering your discomfort.

Once you have sorted out that a discrepancy exists, the next step isn’t necessarily clear. Should the plan be changed to reflect the ideas that emerged through the writing or should the text itself be changed to reflect the original plan? Since each case will be different, I have no across-the-board answer to this question. However, I do think it is worth giving some thought to a general understanding of the way this tension manifests itself in our writing. For some writers, the writing itself is generally more significant than the plan. This emphasis on allowing ideas to emerge through writing is in line with my general emphasis on writing as a form of thinking. But there are some writers whose writing process simply takes them too far afield; given a free hand, these writers can end up so far from where they started that the text can no longer fulfil its intended function.

If you are such a writer, you  may wish to approach the reconciliation of plan and text somewhat differently. In fact, you may wish to take steps to avoid a dramatic discrepancy. One technique is to transform the original plan into a series of in-text directions to yourself. Once you have laid out that business about X, Y, and Z, write yourself a few brief sentences (or sub-heads) that will serve as a reminder to remain within certain parameters as you write. It isn’t that you shouldn’t stray, but if straying is your natural mode of writing, you may be struggling with scattered texts. If that is the case, it can be helpful to put  some tangible reminders of the original plan in place. In other words, take steps to make it harder for you to take unanticipated directions in your text.

The key here is coming to an understanding of your own writing practices: do your drafts naturally evolve beyond your early planning or do they need that early planning to keep them on track? Once you have a sense of that, you can decide how to position yourself in relation to the provisional plans that guide your early drafts.

Letting Go

In two different contexts recently, I had reason to discuss the challenge of deleting material from our own writing. In both cases, I noticed that students appeared to identify strongly with what I was saying: there was a great deal of nodding and grimacing. For lots of writers, writing is so hard that throwing away ‘perfectly good writing’—i.e., writing that is both finished and marginally coherent—is difficult to do. This attachment to our own writing often means that there are elements in a draft that are left in just because we can’t bear to part with them or can’t bear to see a document shrink instead of grow. But it can be very hard to take a draft to the next level when we haven’t expunged the parts that aren’t working. Editing, especially at the early stages, requires a great willingness to jettison material. However, if you found it hard to put the words on paper in the first place, deleting them can be genuinely painful.

One response to this pain—one that, admittedly, gets me some sceptical, easy-for-you-to-say looks from my students—is to think more broadly about the purposes of writing. We don’t write just to satisfy a certain word count or page limit: at a deeper level, we write to sort out what we need to say. That beautiful paragraph you agonized over may have been written for you, not for your reader: you needed to formulate those ideas in proper sentences to understand them properly but the reader may be satisfied with nothing more than a brief mention of what you sorted out. Accepting this broader purpose of writing can lessen our attachment to particular sentences and paragraphs.

If we do come to the realization that a certain passage is no longer serving a purpose in our text, we still need to decide what to do with it. The delete key is too extreme a response for most of us. It’s like a game of Love It or Hate It: faced with a stark binary choice, many of us choose to ‘love’ our first drafts. My solution is to create a place to put all the things that I am not sure of, a place where I can save bits of text that have outlived their usefulness. Saving them means that I might have the chance to use them in some other context. Truth be told, I’m not sure I’ve ever gone back to these old writing fragments, but knowing that they are there gives me to the courage to be a more ruthless editor. Having a good system for managing subsequent drafts is also a good way of increasing your editorial resolve (the ProfHacker blog has a great post on version control that may help you with this). In the end, your writing will thank you for developing the habit of letting go.

This ability to let go can also help with writing efficiency. If we are somewhat steely during our early structural edits—if you don’t know how to start that process, try a reverse outline—we can avoid unnecessary fine editing of material that we might have to remove later. Indeed, the sunk cost of premature fine editing is one of the things that causes us to hang on to text that we no longer need. Having devoted time to improving a particular passage, rather than to thinking about how it serves the broader text, we can find ourselves unwilling to remove that passage.

In sum, remaining alert to the potential benefits of removing passages from our texts can help us to avoid wasted editorial efforts and can leave us with a document that is ultimately stronger and more cohesive. Finally, this brief post from the GradHacker blog talks in a similar vein about the need to delete the stuff that isn’t working for us.