Put it in reverse

by Haley Morton

So the last word is written on your paper. How do you feel? Satisfied? Tired? Ready for some chocolate? If you’re at all like me, you probably a combination of all of those. But sometimes…you still think your paper is a complete mess. Ok, I’ll admit it—that’s me all the time. The good news is I have an answer for all of your first draft messy writing problems: reverse outlines! Get a blank sheet of paper, grab a hard copy of your paper, and let’s get started!

Here’s what you do:

  1. Read your paper all the way through with your intended thesis in mind.  Ask yourself: Does my intended thesis match the big idea I’m finding in my paper?
  2. Go back to the introduction. Have a friend read your introduction and ask him what he thinks your thesis is. If it matches yours, jot it down at the top of the blank sheet of paper.
  3. Move on to the next paragraph. Write down the big idea of this paragraph under your paraphrased thesis. Be honest with yourself, if the paragraph has two main ideas instead of one, write them both down. If you can’t figure out the main idea, you’ll need revise the paragraph to have one, or perhaps you’ll find that the ideas belong in other paragraphs and have just been misplaced.
  4. Repeat step three for the rest of your body paragraphs.
  5. When you get to the conclusion, watch out for ideas you haven’t introduced in the rest of your paper. You don’t want these. Also, do you find anything in your conclusion that might make a better thesis for your paper than the one you already have? If so, take note.
  6. Now take a step back. Look at what your reverse outline (everything you wrote on that blank piece of paper) is telling you. Does anything need to be moved around for logical reasoning’s sake? Do you need more evidence for some of your ideas? Should you refine your thesis to match the development of your ideas (rather than how you thought they would develop before you got to the conclusion)?
  7. Make the necessary changes according to your outline. Your paper will make a lot more sense to your reader now that you’ve approached your revision this way.

Reverse outlines shouldn’t be frustrating, so be sure to be patient with yourself. Revising takes a little extra time, but it’s worth it’s worth the better grade. Plus, you’ll feel even more accomplished! Happy revising!

Haley is a senior at Principia College and a political science and history double major. She has spent the last four years writing, studying, and running cross country and track. Currently, she is working on her capstone about Title IX and women in athletics. 

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