RS__Structure__Where are my section breaks? Reverse outlining as a tool to find your section breaks

We all know that seminar papers, dissertation chapters, and theses require section breaks, places where the author pauses to explain what they will do next and how it will contribute to their larger argument. Sometimes, we know how to break up our work into sections, but often — especially when we are unsure of what we are arguing — the section breaks in our rough drafts feel randomly determined. Readers need section breaks because these breaks offer them the opportunity to pause, reflect on what has been argued, understand how a group of paragraphs (the section) contributes to the larger argument, and orient themselves toward what is to come. This revision strategy delineates one way to determine appropriate section breaks in a rough draft by using a multi-level reverse outline.

  1. Do a reverse outline of your essay or chapter. In other words, consider each paragraph in turn and write some notes to yourself in the margins where you articulate the main point of each paragraph. (Note: You can either do this by hand on a printed copy of your piece, or you can do it with the comment function on your word processor. However, for reasons that will become clear in a moment, we recommend doing this revision strategy by hand.*) This is the first level of your reverse outline.
  2. Now, look over your reverse outline and identify clusters of paragraphs (2-3) that fit together. (Perhaps they analyze a piece of data, make a point about a textual example, etc.) In the margins, write some notes to yourself in which you articulate the main point of these clusters. Please note, you might need to move paragraphs and even sentences around. The idea here is to add a second level to your reverse outline, one that identifies the guiding purpose of paragraph clusters.
  3. Consider this second level of your reverse outline, and ask yourself, which paragraph clusters work together, step by step, to add up to an even larger claim or argument that 1) you’re trying to advance; and 2) will build towards the argument of your text as a whole. These grouped clusters are the distinct and independent sections of your text, and thus, they indicate the section breaks. Another way to think about this is to understand that a section involves more than one step. So, looking at the paragraph clusters and considering which ones make sense grouped together — which ones work step-by-step — allows you to determine the location of your text’s section breaks. A good rule of thumb is that you’ll need two to three paragraph clusters to form a section. Be sure to create a third level to your reverse outline where you jot down the guiding argument of each section — i.e. the guiding argument made by the grouped paragraph clusters. (Note: As you consider this third level of your reverse outline, be sure to look for any gaps in logic. You might need to add a new paragraph or a new paragraph group.)
  4. Finally, you’ll need to delineate section breaks for your reader by creating a title for each section. Luckily, you can use this third level as a guide. Consider the note that describes the unifying theme or argument that brings multiple clusters together, i.e. the guiding argument of each section. This is the basis for a usefully descriptive section title. In fact, for the time being, you can use your descriptive note as a section title. Just make sure that in the next revision, you revise and refine it.

* If you do this revision strategy by hand, you’ll be able to draw lines or brackets that visually connect the paragraph clusters you’ve identified.

This second-level reverse outline indicates the naturally occurring and logical section breaks of your paper. In addition, it will help you locate gaps in your logic and weak spots in your paper as well as redundancies and moments when you might veer off-topic.

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