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 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?

Once you’ve asked these questions, this exercise will help you apply them more specifically to your work.

Step 1: 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:

      • What the paragraphs say—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.)
      • 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.
      • 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.

Step 2: Now, you will use storyboarding to help you see how you can reorder and unpack your narrative in a coherent and identifiable manner.

If you decide to storyboard on paper, you’ll need a few key items:

      • A pack of index cards
      • a sharpie in two colors
      • somewhere to stick your cards (suggestion: one of those giant tri-fold cardboard poster boards and thumb tacks)

If you decide to try storyboarding using a digital platform, Wonderunit and Canva are two websites that can help. Whether you decide to work by hand or digitally, the process remains the same. Fill out an index card naming the content of each of your paragraphs.  Number the backs of your cards with their corresponding extant paragraph number. Then, 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.

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. Ask yourself as you do so:

      • 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?

Step 3: Once you have a feel for your deck, start your storyboard. The extent or depth of your storyboard will be a matter of scale. You might storyboard for a select part of your argument, using cards to represent discrete pieces of evidence; or you might storyboard the entire text, using the cards to stand in for its broad, section-level claims.

Here’s an example of a physical storyboard:

The storyboard pictured above is written in broad, sweeping language that lists the content (in blue) and purpose (in green) of the sections and subsections of a journal article. Consider this a “final pass,” a holistic view of the article’s narrative.

Step 4: Take a step back and observe your storyboard, reordering cards if necessary, until the narrative feels clear, driven by well-reasoned, carefully unpacked, intuitive arguments.

Step 5: 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.”