Reverse Outlining

What is a Reverse Outline?

A reverse outline is just what it sounds like: outlining in reverse. Reverse outlining produces an outline after you have completed a written first draft.

Why is it helpful to reverse outline a paper?

It is difficult to evaluate your own writing objectively. Reverse outlining can help you see your paper with fresh eyes and figure out if its structure and argument are as clear as possible. Reverse outlining helps you achieve a greater level of objectivity by pulling out the main ideas of the paper and producing a condensed version of the argument. You can then evaluate the paper’s logic and structure without getting bogged down by sentence-level edits. (These come later!)

How do I do it?

Build a reverse outline paragraph by paragraph. Read one paragraph at a time and write the main idea in the margins, aiming to use fewer than 10 words per paragraph. Then, on another sheet of paper, list these points in outline format. Finally, compare the reverse outline to your original outline for the paper and ask yourself if you have achieved the plan you intended. Does the paper make the argument you’d set out to make? If yes, you’re ready to proofread and edit for grammar, spelling, and mechanics. But if your reverse outline reveals that your paper does not make a clear, well-built argument, reorder the sections of the outline you created. Then reorder your paragraphs to match that. Anytime you hit a wall, remember that our writing tutors can help you reverse outline, too.

Revision is part of the writing process.

Follow these steps to reverse outline and begin revision:

  1. Your first job is to determine the purpose of each paragraph. If you have trouble summing up the main point in fewer than 10 words, this signals a paragraph about multiple topics. Edit it by splitting the paragraph into two (or three) separate paragraphs. 
  2. Determine if your ideas follow logically from one to the next. Review your reverse outline: Is there a better order in which to present the ideas to your reader? 
  3. Once the paragraphs are in the right order, check for transitions between paragraphs. Have you given clear signals about where you’re heading? Does your voice work as a thread, running through the paper, guiding and making connections for the reader?
  4. Now compare the reverse outline to your thesis statement and ask if they match. It’s possible that while you were writing, your thesis changed for the better. In this case, you may need to revise your introduction to accommodate what you have actually written. It’s also possible that you strayed in a non-productive way from your original thesis, in which case you’ll need to revise the body of the paper to conform better to your original plans.
  5. Compare the conclusion and the introduction. Remember not to simply repeat what you wrote in the introduction, because—after all—if the conclusion doesn’t arrive anywhere new, why have we gone on this journey? That said, the conclusion should never introduce completely new ideas, just new ways of analyzing the ideas reviewed and discussed in the preceding paragraphs. Suggestions for revision include:
    • if the conclusion answers a question, then that question should be inserted into the introduction;
    • if the conclusion asks questions about where this argument may potentially lead, does the introduction set the reader up to understand that this paper alone is not going to lay out all of the final answers?
    • if the conclusion is actually the first place you define your question or argument, it should be turned into the introduction. This is more common than you might think! Most of us don’t know what we want to say until we’ve said it in a first draft. Revise the conclusion to serve as the introduction, and write a new conclusion now that you know what you said.
  6. Now you have a second draft! The reverse outline helped you reorganize it so that it clearly states what you set out to state. Your next job is to revise it for grammar, mechanics, and spelling. You will catch many more errors if you take a shower or a walk or a sleep between the reverse outline and this final pass.