Where Are My Section Breaks? Reverse Outlining as a Tool to Find Them

We all know that seminar papers, dissertation chapters, and theses require section breaks: places where the author offers the reader the opportunity to 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. Section breaks are a lot like the floors of a skyscraper; they build to provide a paper with Structure. Section breaks often fluctuate during the drafting and revision stages, and what was once a clear place for a section break, might not be so clear after a few revisions. This revision strategy lays out one way to place section breaks in a rough draft by using a multi-level reverse outline. A multi-level (or second-level) reverse outline will indicate the naturally occurring and logical section breaks within your paper. In addition, this kind of outline 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.

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 where you articulate the purpose of each paragraph. You can either do this by hand on a printed copy of your piece, or 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. For in-depth instructions on how to do a basic reverse outline, consider this entry.

Step 2: Now, look over your reverse outline and identify clusters of paragraphs (2-3) that fit together. Perhaps they analyze related pieces of data, make similar points about a textual example, etc. In the margins, write notes to yourself that articulate the purpose of these clusters. You might find it helpful to move paragraphs around. The idea here is to add a second level to your reverse outline, one that identifies the guiding purpose of paragraph clusters.

Step 3: Now that your reverse outline includes the purpose of both individual paragraphs and of coordinated paragraph clusters, look over your outline and try to identify even larger groupings that hold together because of a shared purpose. Is a stack of paragraphs all working toward the goal of establishing a particular kind of historical or theoretical context? Is a sequence of paragraphs all walking through the application of an idea? Diving into a case study? These are all guiding purposes that could be the basis for treating a particular sequence of paragraphs as a section. Wherever you identify a common purpose at this larger scale, note this larger grouping of paragraphs in the margin and write down your understanding of its organizing purpose.

Step 4: Go back to your draft and create the section breaks in your piece. Use your findings from the reverse outline to locate where those breaks need to be placed. Finally, use the realizations you reached about the guiding purpose of each section to write a sentence or two that helps readers see this organizing principle for themselves. This is something you’ll want to include in the first paragraph of the section. You might also use your understanding of that core purpose as the basis for a section title.

If you find reverse outlining a particularly useful revision strategy, try these variations: “Is your first draft disorganized? Reverse outlining as a method to discover structure” and “Lost Your Work’s Narrative: Reverse Outlining and Storyboarding as a Method of Reordering Your Work’s Structure.”