Take a step back before moving forward

by Mackenzie Batten

Sometimes when I am writing a paper, I get so excited about the subject that I start writing down anything and everything. In high school when I would do this, I would have to go back afterwards and read sentence by sentence to make sure everything fit. My FYE tutor, however, taught me a more efficient way of making sure my content relates back to my thesis and that thoughts are in the right order.

It is called the reverse outline, and I am going to explain how I use this helpful tool!

In order to fully take advantage of this technique, I start out by writing a complete rough draft. (You could also use a partial draft if you want to review the organization of what you have so far. If you have not started your paper, a normal outline would be more helpful.)

Once I have something to work with, I make the reverse outline. At the top of the paper, I like to write the main thesis of the writing so that I can reference it later. For each paragraph, I construct a sentence that summarizes the main idea. Sometimes I just use the topic sentence of the paragraph, when it accurately represents the contents. But when it doesn’t, I write a new sentence that expresses the main purpose of the paragraph.

It is useful to number the paragraphs and the sentences in the outline for easy reference.

Now that the outline is complete, I can ask myself questions to improve the organization and content of the paper. Some questions I ask myself are:

Does every paragraph have a purpose? Or are there too many important points in one paragraph? Sometimes a paragraph doesn’t have a clear purpose, so I either need to further expand on the subject or combine it with another unfinished paragraph. But occasionally the paragraphs work better separated if there are too many ideas in one section. Breaking up or combining paragraphs so each contains one complete point is the goal.

Do the main ideas of my paragraphs relate back to my thesis? If not, should I alter my thesis because I see I’ve made a new, important point? Occasionally, I like what I have written so much that I choose to alter my thesis to match the subject of my pre-existing paragraph rather than change the paragraph to match the thesis.

Does the order of my paragraphs make sense? This is when numbering the paragraphs becomes very useful! Paragraphs are moveable, so be open to reorganizing.

I hope this reverse outline technique helps you organize your thoughts! I know this technique has helped me revise my papers and make sure I am producing my best possible writing! (For more ideas on reverse outlines, check out “Reverse outlines to get you to the finish line”  and “Put it in reverse.”)


Mackenzie Batten is a political science major. She enjoys competing in Principia’s Moot Court and on the Mediation Team.

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