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Reverse Outlining: Writing

Fast facts

  • Reverse outlining is a technique you can use while rough drafting to stay on track.
  • You can also reverse outline to help with editing after completing your first draft.
  • Reverse outlining is extra beneficial when working on longer or sustained writing projects.

What is reverse outlining?

A reverse outline is a way to make sense of the structure of your rough draft by summarising paragraphs into phrases. Sometimes we make an outline and then by the time we finish our first draft, we haven’t stayed with our intended structure. Even in later drafts of our work, we can lose the thread of our thoughts. We are too close to the text, in this case, missing the forest for the trees.

One way to get an understanding of how the ideas are progressing and where to make structural changes is to do a reverse outline. This helps you see the development of ideas from a more distant view, clarifying what you have already discussed, what you have yet to discuss, and the shape or flow of ideas in their current state.

This technique works with assignments of any length, but reverse outlines can be particularly illuminating when grappling with longer essays, dissertation chapters, or thesis chapters. A reverse outline is a methodical, reliable way to 'check in' and refocus when you feel lost or overwhelmed during a sustained writing project.

How to do it

Either in print or on the screen, read through each paragraph and summarise the main point in a single word or phrase. You can write the word or phrase in the margin or add it as a comment.

Let’s say you are writing a paper on Shakespeare: your first paragraph might be summarised as 'introduction', the next might be 'author background', then 'text background', then 'Ophelia overview', etc. Once you have completed your one-word or single-phrase summaries, transcribe them in order into a new document, formatting them like an outline:

  • Introduction
  • Author background
  • Text background
  • Ophelia overview
  • [Etc.]

This process essentially reverse engineers an outline from where you are at that point in the writing, allowing you to view a 'boiled down' version of exactly what you have written and its current structure and flow.

What if I can't summarise a paragraph?

If you are unable to summarise a paragraph from your draft in one clear statement, then one of two issues is likely the culprit:

  • You don’t have a central point to your paragraph. If so, try to include a topic sentence at the top of the paragraph that explicitly links the evidence to the previous point or the main thesis.
  • You have more than one central point to the paragraph. If this is the case, think about breaking up the ideas into their own paragraphs in order to clarify your points.

This demonstrates how reverse outlining can be used, firstly, to help with paragraph focus and coherence. Next, you will learn the other ways you can use your reverse outline.

How to use it

Once you have the paragraphs summarised into central points, remember to arrange them in an outline shape so you can view and reflect upon the 'boiled down' version of your rough draft. Here are some of the ways you can use that reverse outline:

For the 'strict plan' writers

If you carefully planned your essay before you began, try comparing your reverse outline (i.e., 'what has actually happened') to your original outline (i.e., 'what I wanted to happen') to see how your work is progressing. Have you missed some beats? Highlight any important omissions you spot.

Remember that your original outline can be modified. With that in mind, check your reverse outline for signs of discoveries or new ideas. Does the unexpected content contribute to your thesis? If so, revisit your original plan to accommodate the new material.

Planning next steps

Regardless of your usual invention strategies, you can use the reverse outline to plan your next steps. By assessing how the essay’s arguments and evidence are progressing towards explaining and defending the main point, you can identify what remains to be done and prioritise that work in your next writing session. To do this, you can transform your reverse outline into a 'living' outline:

  1. Highlight what you have completed satisfactorily in green (i.e., 'good to go').
  2. Then, add the missing pieces, and highlight them in red (i.e., 'stop, needs work').
  3. Finally, you can pencil in any points you are unsure about adding, and highlight those in yellow (i.e., 'proceed with caution').

As you continue to work on your rough draft, end each writing session by updating the living outline to reflect your progress.

Fixing flow

Whether you started with a plan or dove right in, a reverse outline will let you check whether the structure that has emerged makes sense and logically follows. Think about the reader's experience, and make notes of where to shuffle, add or delete content. As an example, let's consider this reverse outline of a draft critically comparing the production of two types of fabric:

  • Water use to produce cotton textile.
  • Water use to produce bamboo textile.
  • Pesticides and bamboo textile.
  • Labour ethics and bamboo textile.
  • Labour ethics and cotton textile.

What potential issues do you spy in the above structure? For starters, the writer discusses pesticides in relation to bamboo textile production, but not cotton textile production: the writer can make a note to add that content, as the critical comparison will otherwise seem incomplete.

Second, the order isn't as logical as it could be: one paragraph about cotton, then three paragraphs about bamboo, then an abrupt return to cotton. The writer can shuffle the subtopics to flow more logically and enable direct comparison between the two fabrics (i.e., water/cotton > water/bamboo > pesticides/cotton > pesticides/bamboo > ethics/cotton > ethics/bamboo).Decorative