RS_Structure_Disorganized First Draft: Reverse Outlining as a Method to Discover Structure

Primarily, the work of writing a first draft focuses on getting your ideas out on the page. Often, this results in drafts that are long and unwieldy; often, the writer can’t quite tell if the structure of their draft makes sense or even, what the structure is doing. Reverse Outlining helps you, the writer, edit, reorganize, and streamline your work. Using a reverse outline, you (the writer) place yourself in the reader’s position and look at the flow of what you have. Reverse outlining is a tool that can be used at varying stages of the writing process — everything from revising sentences within a paragraph to the paragraphs, sections, and chapters within a dissertation.

Reverse outlining can help you determine:

  • If a given section is actually saying what you thought you were saying
  • If your points are clear and presented in the correct order
  • Whether the argument supports your thesis
  • Whether important ideas are buried within a paragraph
  • The direction that you should go with your draft
  • The gaps in your argument
  • Your paper is actually arguing for a different thesis, or is making a different argument than you originally intended
  • You might even prefer your new argument/thesis! …Or not.
  • Either way, your reverse outline can help you rework the paper accordingly

Here are the suggested steps for reverse outlining:

  1. Number the paragraphs
  2. Identify the topic or purpose of each paragraph
  3. Put these topics into an outline form
  4. Analyze this outline
  5. Create a revised outline
  6. Reorganize the text according to the revised outline
  7. Check for cohesion

You can also do this on a sentence level within each individual paragraph.


  • In the margins, take brief and pithy notes about what each paragraph/section is doing, in a sentence or two.
  • If you can’t get a paragraph’s/section’s claim down to 1-2 short sentences, the paragraph/section might need focusing
  • Once you have pithy claims for each section/paragraph, you might notice that the paragraphs want to be rearranged to better make your point.
  • Analyze and comment on the paragraph — what changes do you want to make?
  • Pay special attention to how each section advances the paper’s argument.
    • Ask yourself:
      • What is the section actually saying?
      • What do you want the section to say?
      • Did you dedicate too much time to one topic?
      • Did you write too little about other ideas?
      • Are there logical gaps, and if so, where are they?

Writing Sample

Some notes:

  • As we mentioned above, reverse outlining allows you to put yourself in the place of the reader as you review your writing. When you do this, you will untangle the organization of your essay and be able to reorganize your analysis and evidence to improve the overall logical flow. Reverse outlining also allows you to determine where you need more analysis and/or more evidence.
  • Reverse outlining is a particularly helpful tool for revising because it affords you a birds-eye view of a section or the entire document. In other words, with reverse outlining, you develop a big picture of the whole document and discover how to make each part fit better into the whole. When you analyze the reverse outline you have created, you only jot down reminders of how you plan to revise in the future. By creating a plan for revision, you can ensure that all changes work holistically for the entire text. In other words, if you suggest a revision and later realize that the suggestion does not work, you can rethink the plan without having wasted time making revisions that must be altered or even worse, having erased text that was, in fact, necessary.
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