WriteCast Episode 43: How and Why to Revise With a Reverse Outline
© Walden University Writing Center 2017
MAX: Welcome to Write Cast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers, a monthly podcast by the Walden University Writing Center. I’m Max Philbrook,
CLAIRE: and I’m Claire Helakoski.
MAX: Today we’re talking about reverse outlines, a helpful organization tool.
CLAIRE: What a reverse outline is, how to create one, and when it can be helpful.
MAX: What is a reverse outline? Well, like a regular outline, a reverse outline is an overview of the main points and ideas in your paper. The main difference with a reverse outline form a standard, traditional outline, is that you create a reverse outline after you have a draft. So, instead of creating an outline about what you want to write about or what you hope to write about in your paper, a reverse outline is a reflection of the material that you’ve actually written. And so this is a tool that scholarly writers use when they are in the drafting stages of their work.
So, you have a draft; essentially what you’re going to do is you’re going to read back through your paper and you make short notes about the topic of the information in each paragraph. Why do I do this? Well, after I have a draft, I want to know what I’ve actually said and how those topics actually go together. So after I’ve completed my draft, I’ll go back and read my first body paragraph and make a quick note about the topic of the information. The note is a description of the topic that I’ve addressed in the paragraph. And, if I’ve written a well-focused paragraph, that’s clear, I should be able to describe the topic of that paragraph in one sentence. And so, maybe it’s something like: “How my advocacy program supports school children”…or “Description of ineffectual leadership styles”…or “Background information on the school district I’m researching”. The key is to honestly and critically write down what information is in the paragraph. And that’s different than a standard outline where you’re describing what you want to talk about in your paper. So after I do that with my first paragraph, then I move on to the second paragraph. Read it, make a quick note about the topic of information, essentially I’m creating a new outlined of the paper based on what I’ve actually written. For me, as a writer, this is very, very helpful because it helps me understand what my paper actually says.
CLAIRE: Thanks for explaining that for us, Max. So, we talked about the process of how that might go as you’re working, but what will that look like? What will the visual be when you’re done? You can make notes, maybe you want to print out your paper and make some hand-written notes on the side of each paragraph, maybe you want to take your Word document and leave yourself little comments, maybe you want to start a new document and just have a blank document up next to your finished paper and make the reverse outline that way. So that can be, whatever format is most comfortable and effective for you. I prefer to print it out and kind of make hand-written notes because it helps me to feel, I don’t know, more like I’m reading my own work critically to have a printed page and to be able to kind of separate things out like I would make notes for a class. So that’s one of the techniques that I like to use, but there are a lot of different ways you can approach creating you reverse outline with all the different technology that’s out there.
MAX: I like the print-out-the-paper strategy too, Claire. Sometimes when I’m really in the weeds about organizing a paper…sometimes I’ll even use scissors and cut my drafts and cut up the individual paragraphs and organize them that way. I know what the paragraphs say, and now I have them…I can hold them in my hand and I can rearrange them, and it kind of helps me think about the overall structure of the paper.
So why would a student, who’s awfully busy and who already has written a complete draft of a paper, why would a student take the time and go back and complete a reverse outline? Well we think that it is extremely helpful for many different reasons. And here’s a few of those reasons:
- it can insure that you’re meeting the assignment;
- it can be extremely helpful for enhancing the transitions and the “connectivities” of your paper;
- it can help you avoid repetition with how you present your information;
- it helps you insure that you’ve got quality evidence;
- and most importantly, the reverse outline can help you check for logical organization in how you’ve organized your topics.
CLAIRE: Right. So let’s take a minute to break down how a reverse outline would look for meeting these various goals, and how you want to use a reverse outline is up to you. And it could be used to meet more than one of these kind of topics or ideas, but we’re going to break it apart into what it’ll look like if you’re just trying to do one of these things at a time. So for example, if you were doing your reverse outline to help you meet your assignment, you can compare the assignment prompt to your paper to insure that you’re meeting each aspect of that prompt. It can be used to insure that you aren’t spending 90% or a large portion of your paper just answering one of the questions from the assignment, because a lot of times it’s a two-part or even three-part assignment. So you want to be sure that you’re weighting things appropriately for how that assignment is written and broken up. I recommend doing a bulleted list of all the points you cover in each paragraph, for this strategy. So, we talked about doing one sentence at the beginning, but you could do one or two bullet points for each paragraph if you wanted to. And then you can match it directly to what it’s answering from that assignment prompt.
MAX: That’s a great strategy and a really great use of the reverse outline. Sometimes when you get those two and three-part assignment prompts, it can be really tempting to write and write and write about the first question or the first part of the assignment, and then all of a sudden you’ve got three pages of a four page paper that are only covering one topic. The reverse outline allows you to cross-check against the assignment prompt.
MAX: Another way the reverse outline can help is by aiding the writer in enhancing the transitions between the different points of the paper. In the writer’s mind, it’s always really easy to make those connections between point A and point B. However, as a reader, it’s not always that simple. And so when you’ve got the description of the topic of the paragraph, it helps the writer express what those connections are. And you can actually see the gap between each paragraph. I think then it’s easier to see what type of transition is needed between each one of those topics. So, you look at topic A and you see it written clearly next to topic B, in a short, concise way, and then you decide what is the connection there and what transition best expresses that connection. Sometimes it can be hard to find the clear transition between sentence to sentence or paragraph to paragraph, but the reverse outline helps you zoom out and see the big picture of your paper or of the project that you’re working on. And it can help you ask questions like: how are these points related? So that way you can emphasize to connections and you can add those bits of connective tissue to your paragraphs and your paper as you’re revising. What else, Claire? What else can it help you with?
CLAIRE: So in addition to enhancing those transitions, you can use the reverse outline to assist in avoiding repetition and insure that you’re having quality evidence throughout your work. If you take a look at the reverse outline you’ve made, and see that you’re emphasizing the same point in more than one paragraph, so maybe you made your little single sentence next to each paragraph, and you see two paragraphs in a row or even later in the paper, where you’ve written a very similar sentence, or you’re making a very similar point, that might be a good indication that you should go back and condense that idea into one paragraph. So that might involve condensing your evidence as well. Sometimes I’ve seen student papers where they have a lot of great evidence, but multiple pieces of evidence are kind of making the same point. So using that reverse outline, you can see where you’re doing that and really think about which piece is going to help me make the best point that I possibly can here. And, it’ll help you avoid that repetition so that the reader isn’t feeling like they’re reading the same point again and again.
MAX: And, finally, just being able to see the top view, the zoomed-out view of your paper, and the topic of each paragraph, allows you to look at the order of your topics. And to insure that you’ve logically organized those for the reader. Remember, the reader cannot read your mind, unfortunately. You have to be very logical about how you present information to the reader. The reverse outline allows you to make sure that you presented each topic in an order that makes sense to the reader. For the reader to understand topic B, maybe first you need to express and explain topic A.
CLAIRE: Right. It’s so easy to get caught up in just getting your ideas out there and trying to write down everything you can think of about your topic and answer the questions, and it’s important to take that kind of extra step back and be sure that the order you’ve written it in, is the order that’s going to make the most sense to the reader. Because you reader probably needs a little bit of context and background first, whereas you may end up writing that later in the paper.
So when you’re creating your reverse outline, pay attention to: can you clearly identify the thesis statement in your introduction? Is it difficult to determine the main topic or point of any paragraph? That’s going to mean that you need to go back and take a look at that paragraph because, maybe the ideas need to be split into two separate paragraphs, maybe you need some more development, maybe you need a stronger topic sentence. Maybe you’re trying to just cover too many things at once and it needs to be split up into smaller paragraphs instead.
MAX: That’s right. If it’s hard for the writer to understand and figure out what the topic of that paragraph is, imagine the difficulty the reader will have.
MAX: So, after you’ve created your reverse outline, and once you have the topic of each paragraph lined out, there are some questions that you should ask yourself as you look through your paper to help you get the right mindset to revise.
- Does each paragraph’s topic relate to the paper’s thesis statement?
- Is it clear how the paragraph fits in to the overall purpose or argument of the paper?
- Does each paragraph focus on one topic?
- Has the writer stayed on topic and in focus?
- If not, it might be important to think about revising that paragraph so it’s more clearly aligned with a single topic.
- Do the paragraph topics progress in a logical order?
- Why does this paragraph fit in after this paragraph but before this one?
- Are your sections unified?
- Do you discuss topic A then topic B, then C, and then return to topic A?
- If so, perhaps you can find a more logical order to present these paragraphs in so like-information is connected.
- Does the conclusion paragraph reflect and expand on the introduction paragraph?
- Have you used transitions to help guide your reader through your points?
- If not, what types of transitions might be useful and relevant?
So, hopefully with all these questions in mind, you can see how a reverse outline could be a useful tool as you begin to revise a draft of a paper that you’ve written. Claire, have you ever used a reverse outline? Did it work for you?
CLAIRE: Yeah. I use reverse outlines all the time because I write really sloppy first drafts. Where I just get my topic or my assignment and I write and write and write all the ideas that I can think of, put in research here and there, and it comes out as kind of a big mess. (Laughs) So I use the reverse outline to take that very sloppy draft and pull out the different ideas so, for my very sloppy draft, I end up having like two or three bullet points for each paragraph that I’ve made. Which is ok for me because then I can look at what ideas are coming up again and again and move those bullet points around so that I can put the main ideas and sort of focuses and topics that I’m actually talking about together and then restructure it into more formal paragraphs. So I find it very effective for my particular writing style. And the cool thing about the reverse outline is that no matter what your writing style or revision style is, you can kind of adapt it to work for you. Speaking of which, Max, have you used a reverse outline and how did it work for you?
MAX: I have used the reverse outline, but it, it was kind of in a unique way. For, I realized that it was a useful tool in a unique way. When I’m writing I’m the kind of writer who writes himself into understanding. What do I mean by that? I don’t really know where my paragraph is going to go or what the topic of my paragraph is until I’ve written it. And that might sound weird, but that’s just kind of how my brain works. And it’s not always pretty when it first comes out. (Laughs) And so what I like to do is write my paragraphs and then figure out what those paragraphs are about and that is kind of how I keep using the reverse outline. Is, you know, I always call it like sneezing it out on the page and just getting that information, the thoughts, the ideas that I have, on the page. And then going back through, looking at each paragraph, deciding what I actually am trying to say in that paragraph, and then deciding what order I need to organize that information in.
CLAIRE: That sounds like we have a very similar, very messy process. (Laughs) But whatever works, works for you. So just remember that.
MAX: Exactly. The writing process, even though on our Writing Center website, looks clean and straight lines, and kind of check off each point as you go, it doesn’t always look like that in reality. And so we just like to provide as many tools as we can to help students figure out what process works best for them. And I’m so sorry if you’re process resembles Claire’s and mine in any way (Laughs). So, there you go. The reverse outline: a very useful tool for writers to help figure out what they’re trying to say and the best way to say it. Let us know if you have experience using a reverse outline. Drop us a comment, send us an email, keep working hard and continuing on your journey towards academic writing proficiency.
If you’re curious for more examples or more in-depth information about the reverse outline, we have resources in our online Writing Center. We have an outlining webpage on our website and you can access that easily if you just search “outlining” on the search box on our home page. And this will give you strategies for creating the standard, before-you-draft outline, but also there’s a link for using the reverse outline as well.
CLAIRE: Right, and one tool that I recommend to students often is our blog post about using a reverse outline, just titled “Is your short attention span showing?: Using a reverse outline”. So that’s a really helpful one as well, if you like our blog.
MAX: I love our blog.
CLAIRE: Me, too.
CLAIRE: Thanks for listening everyone. You’ve been tuning in to WriteCast, and we will be back next month with more writing topics.
MAX: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. You can find past episodes on iTunes and on our website academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter. We’d love to hear from you. Connect with us on Facebook, on Twitter @WUWritingCenter, and on our blog: WaldenWritingCenter.blogspot.com. Thanks for listening!