Tag Archives: reverse outline

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.

Purposeful paragraphs

by Bailey Bischoff

To keep papers from seeming like an endless stream of words, we break them up into bite-size chunks through the use of paragraphs. Without paragraphs, readers would get lost in a sea of black and white. However, by using paragraphs, writers can help readers focus on the main ideas of the paper so that readers come away with an understanding of the writer’s organization, structure, and intent.

In order for readers to follow a paper’s ideas through the structure of paragraphs, each paragraph break must be purposeful. Inserting a paragraph break because you think there should be a break on every page or because it feels like there should be a break? Not the best strategy. Instead, you should focus on communicating one idea within each paragraph. This means that when you introduce a new idea, you should probably start a new paragraph.

Another way to think about paragraphs is to determine how the main idea in each paragraph relates to your thesis. The paragraph can support, negate, concur, analyze, or expand upon your thesis for the paper. One reason paragraph breaks are there is to make sure that you aren’t doing all of those things at the same time.

So here are some tips for improving paragraphs:

  1. Know what you are trying to communicate.

If you are unsure of what you’re trying to say, then you’ll have trouble saying it. Take a moment to think about your paper (or free write!) in order to gain a better understanding of the purpose of your paper as a whole.

  1. Know what’s happening within each paragraph to serve your paper’s purpose.

Is the purpose of the paragraph to support? Negate? Concur? Analyze? Expand? Make sure your paragraph has one purpose and contains one main idea.

  1. Let the introduction sentence lead.

The first sentence of the paragraph should give the reader an idea of where the paragraph is headed. Strengthening the first sentence will strengthen the paragraph.

  1. Read your paragraph and write down what you think is the main idea.

When you read the paragraph, does the main idea that’s actually there match up with the main idea you had in mind when you were writing it? If not, try restructuring your paragraph.

Purposeful paragraphs make for powerful papers.

Bailey Bischoff is a junior majoring in political science and is serving as student body president.

Rainbow revision

by Shannon Naylor

I recently finished a draft of an important research paper. Like most of my first drafts, it needed many improvements before it was ready to be turned in. I printed out a copy, grabbed a red pen, and started editing. By the time I was done with the first page, I could hardly distinguish between the different edits, notes, and proposed additions that littered the page. Frankly, it was a mess. What to do?

Good revision, like a good paper, is organized so that you can make sense of what editing needs to be done. On my first pass, I hadn’t been looking for specific things to fix, and I had made the edits difficult to read. Here’s the revision strategy that I’ve been using since then in order to polish my papers.

This particular strategy works best with a hard copy of the paper. It allows you to have a tactile interaction with the process, but you can achieve something similar with Microsoft Word if preferred. I find that it is easiest to use three differently colored pens and a highlighter. Any colors will do so long as they are readable, but I like to use red, blue, and green pens with a yellow highlighter.

  1. Skim through your paper without making any marks to determine what its weaknesses are. (In mine, I needed to fix typos, add commentary, remove repetition, and edit for sentence clarity.)
  2. On your next pass, cross out typos and poorly phrased or unnecessary sentences with the red pen.
  3. Write in changes and additions with blue pen.
  4. Use the green pen to make marginal notes about what each paragraph says and does. (See Put It in Reverse for details on this strategy.)
  5. Go through with the highlighter to mark structural issues or patterns that need to be made visible. (This may change from paper to paper. For example, in one paper I marked places where I repeated words with a highlighter, but in another I used it to indicate where I already had commentary, where it was missing, or where I needed to add more.)
  6. Celebrate!

By the end of this revision process, you should have a good understanding of the current state of your paper as well as how you intend to fix it. You’ll be set to have a radical time revising!


Shannon is a junior studying theatre and English with a focus on creative writing. She is looking forward to studying and performing Shakespeare with the England Abroad in the fall.

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.