How to create a reverse outline

Writing a manuscript of any length is hard, but writing a longer piece presents special challenges. Whether you’re like me and have been writing for a while or a graduate student just getting started, writing longer manuscripts present special challenges. In particular, I believe longer manuscripts present challenges in staying focused, having a strong logical flow, and keeping your reader engaged.  In today’s post, I want to describe how to create a reverse outline to improve your writing.

Typically, we think of outlines as something to be completed prior to beginning the writing process.

Reverse outlines are completed after the first draft of a piece of writing.

Reverse outlines provide a great resource for examining your paper after you’ve completed it. An outline helps guide your thinking when sitting down to write, but a reverse outlines helps reveal your thinking as you actually wrote it.

This technique is a great way to help you get started in the revision process.

Steps for creating a reverse outline

1.  Number each paragraph in your paper.

2.  In a separate document, write down the number of the paragraph and a short phrase of the key ideas in each paragraph.  If there are more than one main idea in the paragraph, you should write down multiple phrases.

3. Complete this process for the entire paper so that you have a list of all of your paragraphs and main ideas.

Now that you have your reverse outline, you can start analyzing your paper for problems areas that you can improve during the revision process.

I suggest asking yourself the following questions (this list isn’t exhaustive but will give you a sense of what to be thinking about):

1.  Were there any paragraphs that you had a problem summarizing either because you couldn’t find a main idea or because you had too many?  This is a red flag. Scrutinize these paragraphs and figure out if they should be deleted, expanded, moved, or otherwise changed.

2.  Are there paragraphs that are repetitive? Do you have the same idea in multiple paragraphs? If so, work to integrate the information and eliminate any unnecessary repetition.

3.  Are ideas grouped together? Or do you have similar ideas in paragraphs 3, 4, 6, and 21?  If so, do some reorganization to get similar ideas together.

4.  Is there a clear and consistent logic flowing from one paragraph to the next? I think this is one of the greatest assets of the reverse outline. Review each paragraph one at a time to see if your paper flows cleanly between ideas.  Identify areas where the flow isn’t clear and you need to add clarification and additional text.

Asking yourself these and similar questions will help guide the revision process. The answers should help you create a to do list of items to tackle during the revision process.

Go Nuclear

The process described above will help you revise a paper in normal situations. However, sometimes, you will have a paper that just isn’t working.

I was writing a literature review about a year ago and I couldn’t get it right. The flow wasn’t working, the ideas were jumbled in my head, and I couldn’t break the logjam.

Reverse outlines can be a wonderful tool to help you get away from a manuscript and really tackle major organizational problems you have in your writing.

The challenge in fixing organization is that it can be hard to get away from the way we wrote ideas the first time. This way of thinking becomes a paradigm that it is hard to get away from in the revision process.

When this happens to me, I use what I call a nuclear reverse outline.

You can do this electronically but I prefer doing it hard copy.

I print out a copy of the paper and take a pair of scissors to cut up the paper. Instead of summarizing the key idea in each paragraph, I cut each idea into a slip of paper. (Note: Write the paragraph number on the back of the slip so that you can put the puzzle back together when you’re done).

After cutting each idea into a slip of paper, I then mix them all up, pull one out, and start putting each individual idea in an order that makes sense.

I will often do this in the floor and spread out all the ideas until I can find an organization that works.

While you would think that you just put Humpty Dumpty back into the same order, it is amazing how different the outcome can be when you’re working at the level of individual ideas.

To be sure, some ideas end up back where they were before, but that probably means they weren’t the problem.

In other cases, I’ve sometimes come up with wildly different sections and overall organization of the paper.

While a regular reverse outline can nearly always help in the revision process, I would only recommend the nuclear reverse outline when you’re really struggling with the organization of a manuscript.

Regardless of your situation though, I strongly recommend the use of reverse outlines and hope this helps you know how to create a reverse outline to assist in editing your writing.