Writing Center

Reverse Outline

What is it?

A reverse outline is just what it sounds like: outlining in reverse.  In the early stages of the writing process (before you have a draft), it is a good idea to outline your ideas and produce a draft from that outline.  Reverse outlining is producing an outline from the draft you have already written.

Why is it helpful?

The tricky thing about academic writing is taking the ideas in your head and putting them on paper in such a way that your readers can clearly understand them.  One of the toughest parts of this task is revising; it is very difficult to objectively evaluate your own writing (that’s why coming to the AWC is such a good idea).  Reverse outlining helps you to achieve a greater level of objectivity by pulling out the main ideas of your paper, i.e. what you actually said in your draft.  If done correctly, it produces a condensed version of your argument that you can evaluate without getting bogged down by style.

How do I do it?

A reverse outline should go paragraph by paragraph.  Read one paragraph at a time and write the main idea of each paragraph in the margins of your paper (remember that for your first paragraph, the main point should be your thesis statement!!!) Then list these points, paragraph by paragraph, on another piece of paper. Keep in mind that your draft is not perfect, so there may be some paragraphs that contain no main idea (paragraphs without a purpose) and some that contain multiple main ideas (monster paragraphs).  Don’t panic if you run into these problems- that is the point of revision!  See #4 in the next section, “How do I revise using my reverse outline?” for pointers on dealing with problem paragraphs. 

Here is an example of a reverse outline:
    ¶ 1 (thesis) :  Leonardo is the best ninja turtle.

    ¶ 2 :  He uses swords, which are cooler than the other turtles’ weapons.

    ¶ 3 :  He always takes charge when the turtles get into trouble.

    ¶ 4 :  April clearly likes him the best.

You now have a simple representation of the crux of your argument.  Now it’s time to evaluate that argument and its presentation.

How do I revise using my reverse outline?

  1. COMPARE YOUR MAIN IDEAS TO YOUR THESIS.  Once you have made the reverse outline, your first task is to compare your outline to your thesis and determine whether your thesis has changed for the better as you wrote (which means you should revise your thesis to accommodate what you have written) or whether you have strayed in a non-productive way from your thesis (which means revising the body of your paper).  This may involve a back-and-forth between thesis revision and body revision.  Ultimately, every main idea in your body paragraphs must be relevant to and, furthermore, support your thesis statement.
  2. CONSIDER REVISING THE ORDER.  Ask yourself whether your ideas follow logically from one another as you have presented them. Is there a better order in which to present your ideas to the reader?  For example, you may decide that your argument would be more convincing if you discussed Leonardo’s leadership skills before his weapon choice.
  3. CHECK FOR SIGNPOSTS.  You may understand the point of your paragraph and why it belongs where it is, but do you make this clear to your reader? Are you giving clear signals about where you’re heading? Does your voice work as a thread, running through your paper, guiding and making connections for the reader?  This will likely involve looking at your transition sentences between paragraphs, or rewriting them!
  4. WATCH FOR PARAGRAPHS WITHOUT A PURPOSE AND MONSTER PARAGRAPHS.  As mentioned above, paragraphs without a purpose are those whose main idea you have trouble identifying.  If you’re not certain what the point of one of your paragraphs is, but you sense that it does belong, that it is important, write to yourself about what its point is. Start with lines such as: 
  • The point I want to make here is . . .
  • This paragraph connects to my larger point in that . . . 

If you find these sentences difficult to complete, it may be that the paragraph does not belong in your paper.  Do not be afraid to cut out paragraphs that dilute or unnecessarily complicate your argument.

Monster paragraphs are paragraphs in which you try to squeeze more than one main idea, resulting in each of the ideas in that paragraph not getting the attention it deserves.  Monster paragraphs should be split into two or more separate paragraphs, depending on the severity of the “monster.”