The very best academic writing maintains fidelity to a logically rendered Hierarchy of Argument. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, sometimes our arguments fail to maintain sound logical reasoning. We make logical leaps that may seem reasonable to us as authors, but their logical relations can remain unclear or hard to identify for our readers. This revision strategy uses a model of reverse outlining specifically oriented toward problems regarding identifying and (re)organizing our work’s hierarchy of argument and a model of storyboarding that helps us visualize the order of our argument(s).
Let’s work out what we mean by hierarchy of argument before we jump into reverse outlining and storyboarding. Hierarchy of argument is the relationship of your individual claims and arguments relative to their importance in unpacking your work’s thesis. Ask yourself: Do the purposes of my independent claims align in a clear manner? Do I maintain fidelity to cause and effect relationships from the micro (sentence level) to the macro (subsections, paragraph blocks, etc.) elements of my writing? Do my “reasons why,” my “so what’s” follow an identifiable and logically rendered line of thought?
Now that you know what hierarchy of argument is, here’s an exercise to help you establish it.
Step 1: Reverse outline your essay. In this reverse outline, we suggest that you try to identify the purpose of each of your essay’s paragraphs. In as few words as possible, ideally a single word phrase—definitely less than a sentence—mark:
The paragraph’s purpose—what is the paragraph’s “so what”? Why does the paragraph do the work it does? Mark each paragraph’s purpose in the right-hand margin of your essay. “The paragraph’s purpose” will help you order your hierarchy of argument.
If you can’t distill the paragraph’s purpose into a single word phrase, then your paragraph may try to do too much. Consider breaking down the paragraph by section—focusing on the purpose of each section—within your paragraph. You might find that you have more than one controlling idea operating in it.
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 your expectations of your writing and the reality of your prose.
Step 2: Storyboarding
Ideally, storyboarding will help you see how you can reorder and unpack your narrative and/or hierarchy of argument in a coherent and identifiable manner. 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—for instance, a tri-fold cardboard poster board, which you can affix cards to with thumb tacks. If you decide to try storyboarding using a digital platform, here are a few websites that can help you out:https://wonderunit.com/storyboarder/ and https://www.canva.com/storyboards/templates/. Whether you decide to work by hand or digitally, the process remains the same . . .
- Fill out an index card naming the purpose for each of your paragraphs. Note: I use distinct colors for content and purpose.
- 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.
- Flip through your cards. As you read, try to be mindful of the argumentative sequencing of your cards.
- Reorder your cards as you flip through your deck with respect to the hierarchy of argument, taking into account the timeline of your story.
- Does my argument stack unpack in a clearly discernible series of relations?
- Does my argument maintain an appreciable logical framework?
- Is the cause and effect relationship of my argument sequentially ordered?
Step 3: 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.
Here’s an example of a physical storyboard:
Note: the extent or depth of your storyboard is always a matter of scale. You might storyboard a specific argument you make in your work, or storyboard the entire text and use index cards to speak to the broad, section-based claims you make in your text. You may find storyboarding helpful as a technique to work out especially difficult and complicated claims.
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 for Radical Teacher. Consider this a “final pass,” panoramic view of the article’s hierarchy of argument.
Step 4: Observe your storyboard. To extend the analogy, think of this part of the storyboard process as “running the reel.” Play out the steps of your argument as if they were a film flipping by at 24-frames per second. When you’re done, reorder your cards.
Repeat Step 4 until you feel that you’ve found the best sequence to tell an appreciable argument driven by well-reasoned, carefully unpacked, narratologicaly-sound arguments. Then, 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 fractures in your writing’s narrative. If you find that this strategy works for you, then consider leveling-up the revision strategy so that you attend to both your narrative and argument on the same storyboard.
If the tactile work of storyboarding helps you problem-solve, these similarly idiosyncratic revision strategies might help: “Will my reader know what’s important? Mapping and signposting as tools to navigate between claims,” “Disorganized first draft? Color-coding as a tool to reorganize and restructure” and “Lost Your Work’s Narrative: Reverse Outlining and Storyboarding as a Method of Reordering Your Work’s Structure.”