Reverse outlines to get you to the finish line

by Maddi Demaree

The final weeks of the semester are often very full with classes, wrap-up activities and performances, and, if you’re anything like me, a lot of late nights. This might make it hard to get in to see the writing tutors for help on the revising process of your paper. Just in case you find yourself revising at 2:00 a.m., here’s a strategy you can use without help: the reverse outline.

You are probably familiar with the process of creating an outline at the beginning of the writing process to map out the structure of your paper. This helps to ensure that the ideas in your paper flow in a logical way, with each paragraph tying back to the one before it. Unfortunately, sometimes your writing doesn’t quite go as planned, and when you reach the end of the paper you find that it isn’t as coherent as you’d like it to be. This is a perfect time to utilize the reverse outline.

Reverse outlines function in a similar way to a typical outline—they help you to check the logical unfoldment of ideas in your paper—and quickly reveal to you if something doesn’t make sense! They also help you check for paragraph unity.

The simplest way to create a reverse outline is to look at each paragraph of your paper, and decide on a word or phrase that describes the purpose of that paragraph in relation to the rest of your paper. If you are struggling to find one phrase to describe any given paragraph, it is possible that your paragraph is covering too many ideas at once. At that point, it might be wise to think about how you could restructure the paragraph to have a more singular purpose.

Once you’ve chosen a phrase that can adequately describe the purpose of the paragraph, write that phrase in the margin of your paper. For example, the phrase that might describe the first paragraph of my paper might be: “introduction—giving  context to the issues.”  Later on in the paper, I need to introduce different parties that are interested in the issue that my paper is about. I would describe the paragraph that introduces one of these parties using the phrase “stakeholders’ policy preferences.” These phrases help me know what function each paragraph serves in relation to the rest of the paper.

Go through each paragraph of the paper, writing the phrase you determine in the margin next to the appropriate paragraph. Once you have finished completing that process for each paragraph, write (or type) these phrases out in outline form.

Now, examine your outline. Ask yourself: Does each concept lead to the next one? Does each paragraph accomplish the purpose you hoped that it would accomplish? Should any of your paragraphs be re-ordered to make more sense?

I just used this process with a capstone writer I was working with, and we found that one section of this student’s paper was missing the appropriate introductory context. We were so glad to find that content was something that was already in the paper, but the writer had placed in an earlier section. By creating a reverse outline, we saw how we could reorder content that was already in the paper to best support the flow of ideas.

Maddi Demaree is a senior who will be traveling abroad to New Zealand in the spring.

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