Lost Your Work’s Narrative? Reverse Outlining and Storyboarding as a Method of Reordering Your Work’s Structure

Thinking of academic writing as a kind of storytelling may seem counter-intuitive. After all, academic prose can be dry, demanding, even dull. 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 technical or theoretical, has a beginning, middle, and end. 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 we must unpack our ideas in a logical, clear, and cohesive manner. This entry provides a technique to help you identify and amend moments in your writing that seem “out of order” to your audience. Think about what story you want your work to tell, and how that can guide choices about the Structure of your writing. This revision strategy uses a form of reverse outlining specifically adapted to problems regarding identifying and (re)organizing our work’s narrative, and a model of storyboarding that helps us visualize its order. Storyboarding is a particularily useful excercise for tactile thinkers.

Narrative is the plot of the story you tell in your text. Structurally, thinking through our narrative helps us organize our texts so that the claims we make throughout our work follow a logical sequence. Interestingly, 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 “naturally” from one great idea to the next. When considering your narrative, you should ask yourself: do the points I make follow a logical  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?

This exercise will help you apply these questions to your current draft, thus preparing you to make informed choices as you revise.

Step 1: Reverse outline your essay. First, number each paragraph. Then, write in the margin or use a comment function to identify the purpose of each of your essay’s paragraphs. Is it making a point and supporting it with evidence? Is it supplying additional evidence in support of a claim made in the previous paragraph? Is it acknowledging a complicating factor? Is it “putting the pieces together,” making a connections between different steps of your analysis, or drawing out a broader implication? Whatever the case may be, try to identify the analytical purpose of each paragraph in an informal sentence.

Step 2: Now, convert your reverse outline into a storyboard using index cards. Write the purpose of each paragraph onto an index card, making sure to include the number of the corresponding paragraph in one corner. Stick your storyboarded outline to a wall so you can look at it. (Alternatively, you can create a digital storyboard using  Wonderunit or Canva.

Step 3: Consider the sequence of steps reflected in your storyboard. Do you have two or three paragraphs in a row that all serve the exact same purpose? If so, you’ll want to condense to a single paragraph or develop more distinct purposes for each. Do you have a string of paragraphs all supporting your claims? If so, consider mixing things up with a “complicating factor” paragraph that pushes your analysis to have more nuance. Do you have a long stretch of paragraphs without any of them having a “putting-things-together” or connective sense-making purpose? If so, find a good place to add one. Are any of the paragraphs in your storyboard out of place? Would an adjustment of the sequence help? If so, move things around.

Step 4: Return to your draft and reorder paragraphs with respect to the changes noted on your storyboard.

Note that 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. 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. For more on maintaining a coherent narrative throughout your work see: “Sentences and paragraphs out of order? Rearranging/reconfiguring as a tool to restructure” and “Disorganized first draft? Color-coding as a tool to reorganize and restructure.”