RS__Structure__Lost Your Work’s Narrative: Reverse Outlining and Storyboarding as a Method of Reordering Your Work’s Structure (Structure)

Thinking of your academic writing—your seminar papers, conference work, theses, and dissertations—as a process of storytelling may seem counter-intuitive, after all the all too often dry and technically demanding prose of academia does not, at first blush, endear itself to hero narratives and flights of fancy. Yet, we do tell stories in our academic work with a cast of characters, and a time and place when the action happens—our work, however abstract, has a beginning, middle, and end. Yes, the characters may be enzymes or sociological data points, the setting is often outside the corporeal plane or specific to the controlled setting of a laboratory, and the action is a matter of parsing ostensibly minute distinctions in uniquely specific arguments. Nevertheless, across the disciplines, our work aims to take the reader into a space of knowing, of learning, of understanding something new, and to do that our ideas must unpack in a logical, clear, and cogent manner. The very best academic writing has an identifiable Narrative. It may help to think of your Narrative as something that guides choices about the Structure of your writing. This revision strategy uses a model of Reverse Outlining specifically oriented toward problems regarding identifying and (re)organizing our work’s Narrative and a model of Storyboarding that helps us visualize the order of our work’s Narrative.

Let’s work out what we mean by Narrative before we jump into reverse outlining and storyboarding.

Narrative—Here, we think of Narrative as the plot of the story you tell in your text. Structurely, thinking through our Narrative helps us organize our texts so that the claims we make throughout our work follow a logical sequence. Interestly, when done well, your Narrative (the plot) of your work is often invisible to the reader. The claims/content/purpose(s) of your work seem to flow “naturaly” from one great idea to the next.

Ask yourself: Do the points I make follow a logical cause and effect sequence? Does the context I provide at the onset of my work help establish claims made later in my writing? Do I have a discernible beginning, middle, and end in my writing?



Step One: Reverse Outline your essay. In this Reverse Outline we suggest that you try to identify the content of each of your essay’s paragraphs. In as few words as possible, ideally a single word phrase—definitely less than a sentence—mark:

  1. What the paragraphs says—the content. Jot the content down in the left-hand margin of your work. We’re big on printing out our work when Reverse Outlining. “What the paragraph says” will help you order your Narrative.
  2. If you can’t distill the Paragraph’s content into a single word phrase, then your paragraph may try to do too much. Consider breaking down the content by section within your paragraph. You might find that you have more than one controlling idea operating in it.
  3. Note: Often, perhaps ideally, the content and purpose of your paragraphs will align. Indeed, if the content and purpose of your paragraph are way out of sync, you may have a bit of dissonance between what you mean to be saying and what you are actually saying on the page. See our page on Reverse Outlining [hyperlink here] for strategies on reducing dissonance in your drafts.


Step Two: Storyboarding

Ideally, Storyboarding will help you see how you can reorder and unpack your Narrative in a coherent and identifiable manner.

Storyboarding is an especially useful tool for people who are tactile or visual thinkers and learners.

Before we begin, if you decide to Storyboard on paper, you’ll need a few key items:

A pack of index cards, a sharpie in two colors, and somewhere to stick your cards—I use one of those giant tri-fold cardboard poster boards and thumb tacks.

If you decide to try storyboarding using a digital platform, here are a few websites that can help you out:

Whether you decide to work by hand or digitally, the process remains the same.

  1. Fill out an index card naming the content each of your paragraphs. Note: I use distinct colors for content and purpose, please see “the link to the post on HOA”
  2. Number the backs of your cards with their corresponding extant paragraph number. I prefer not to number the front of my cards as the numbers have a habit of influencing my (re)ordering.
  3. Flip through your cards. I tend to go through the stack three times. As you read, try to be mindful of the narratological sequencing of your cards.
  4. Reorder your cards as you flip through your deck with respect to the Narrative of your work—the beginning middle and end of your story—with respect to timeline and logical reasoning.

I ask myself:

  • Does my Narrative stack unpack in a clearly discernible linear timeline (academic prose is rarely the place for temporal experimentation)?
  • Does my narrative maintain an appreciable logical framework?

5. Build your Storyboard once you have a feel for your deck—a kind of familiarity. There’s a sense of comfort and knowing that occurs as you flip through your deck. You’ll know the right time.

Note: the extent or depth of your Storyboard is always a matter of scale. Sometimes I Storyboard a specific argument I make in my work, sometimes I Storyboard the entire text and the cards I write speak to the broad—section-based claims I make in my text. I often use Storyboarding as a technique to work out especially difficult and complicated claims.

Here’s an example of one of a Storyboard:

The Storyboard pictured above is written in incredibly broad, sweeping language that lists the content—in blue—and purpose—in green—of sections and subsections of an article I wrote for Radical Teacher. Consider this a “final pass,” panoramic view of the article’s Narrative.

Note: Often, my final pass has very few cards as I am considering the timeline as a totality. I tend to have many more cards in my Storyboards when (re)ordering the particularities of a specific argument, its purpose, and how that argument unpacks with respect to the claims made before and after it in my work.

6. Observe Storyboard. I like to think of this part of the Storyboard process as “running the reel.” I play out the steps of my argument as if they were a film flipping by at 24-frames per second (I’m moving a lot slower but the analogy holds…

7. Reorder cards.

8. Repeat steps 6 and 7 until the Narrative tells an appreciable story driven by well-reasoned, carefully unpacked, narratologicaly-sound arguments.

9. Return to work and reorder paragraphs with respect to the changes noted on your storyboard.


A Final Note: Narrative and Hierarchy of Argument sequencing often align. Indeed, we recommend the same combination of strategies when tackling failures of logic in your writing’s Hierarchy of Argument—check out this page on Narrative. If you find that this strategy works for you, then consider leveling-up the revision strategy so that you attend to both your Argument and Narrative on the same storyboard.



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