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 pauses to explain what they will do next and how it will contribute to their larger Argument. Section breaks are a lot like floors of a skyscraper; they build—one on top of another—to provide the Structure your paper needs to stand tall. Section breaks offer the reader opportunities to pause, 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. Sometimes, we know how to break up our work into sections, but often—especially when we are unsure of what we are arguing—the section breaks in our rough drafts feel random. 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 main point 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.

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 main point 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: Ask yourself which paragraph clusters work together, step by step, to add up to an even larger claim or argument that will support the argument of your text as a whole. These grouped clusters are the distinct, independent sections of your text, and thus, they indicate the section breaks.

Step 4: Having provisionally identified your sections, add a third level to your reverse outline where you jot down the guiding argument of each section. As you consider this third level of your reverse outline, be sure to look for any gaps in logic. You might find places where you need to add a new paragraph or paragraph group.

Step 5: Finally, delineate section breaks for your reader by creating a title for each section. Consider the third-level note that describes the unifying theme or argument that brings multiple clusters together, i.e. the guiding argument of each section. This can be a useful 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.”