What’s My Purpose? Reverse Outlining as a Tool to Clarify Your Hierarchy of Claims.

There is an idiomatic saying in English that some professor somewhere is bringing up in their meeting with a graduate advisee right now: “The topic you’re addressing in this essay/article/chapter is complicated and ambitious, but right now I can’t tell what your purpose is. It feels like you’re having trouble seeing the forest for the trees.” The saying “not seeing the forest for the trees” is used to suggest that a person is so focused on the individual details of whatever they are looking at that they fail to see and describe the broader pattern to which those details belong. This saying resonates with a problem many graduate students confront when drafting their essays, articles, and dissertation chapters:  it is easy for a writer to lose sight of their own guiding point when there are so many moving parts that need to be discussed and explained (critical context, related systems, relevant concepts and theories, etc., all of which may need to be broken down into a series of steps or sub-components that get addressed in paragraphs and pages of their own). In other words, it is easy to get sucked into thinking and writing about each element that the writer may stop thinking as clearly about the greater whole they are trying to construct and communicate to their readers. Alternatively, a writer may hold onto a general sense of their larger point while failing to convey that overarching point to the reader. This happens when a writer gets so focused on addressing each element in sequence that they forget to write the sentences and paragraphs that tell the reader how the various parts connect together and add up to the larger understanding that the writer is trying to communicate. In other words, this happens when a writer who sets out to understand and explain something about a forest instead gets sidetracked by the work of describing individual trees. This revision strategy details one way to use your existing draft to reverse engineer your principal claims, making it easier for you to write introductory paragraphs for each section that states their purpose.

This exercise asks you to use reverse outlining to identify the purpose and overall argument of a string of paragraphs.

Step 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 in which you articulate the purpose of that 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.)

Step 2: Now, look over your reverse outline and try to identify groupings of paragraphs that you can characterize as adding up to an even larger claim or argument that you’re trying to advance. Essentially, the idea here is to add another level to your reverse outline, one that identifies the guiding purpose of multiple paragraphs. (Note: 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.)

Step 3: If your two levels of reverse outline leave you with multiple paragraph clusters within your sections, then you’ll need to consider the guiding purposes you’ve identified for each grouping and try to articulate a third level of generality. This will help you to arrive at an understanding of the central claim or idea you need to state at the outset of each section.

Step 4: Reflect on the purpose of each section in order to inform your understanding of the overarching point of the essay/chapter as a whole. Make use of your new understanding when revising the introduction.

Step 5: Now that you’ve completed your multi-level reverse outline, use it to guide your revision work as you craft new opening paragraphs for the introduction and for each section. Think about how to include language that helps readers understand the hierarchical relationship between the part you are working with and the greater whole.

For more ways to employ reverse outlining check out these entries under “Structure:”

What’s my Purpose? Reverse outlining as a tool to clarify argumentLost Your Work’s Narrative: Reverse Outlining and Storyboarding as a Method of Reordering Your Work’s Structure, and Is your first draft disorganized? Reverse outlining as a method to discover structure.