Can’t Remember What You’ve Written? Mirror Outlining as a Tool to Clarify Your Rough Draft

It’s common to finish a section of writing and be left with questions about how well you actually accomplished your goals. Did you say what you wanted to say? Did you forget to mention something? Is your Structure clear? This sort of experience is common amongst scholars writing a first draft because while we often generate ideas as we write, we also forget to include everything. And so, after you’ve finished writing a section, try the following mirror outlining technique where you will produce and then compare two outlines of your draft: an outline that you generate from memory, which captures what you think you’ve written, and a reverse outline, which captures what is actually on the page. (We call the whole process mirror outlining because ideally, the two outlines will reflect each other.) This process will allow you to take a step back from your writing and investigate exactly what is in the text. Mirror outlining helps you remember what you wanted to write and compare it to what you’ve actually written, ensure that your structure is clear to your readers, identify loose threads, and even discover what is most memorable about each paragraph.

Step 1: After you’ve written a section, open up a new document, and, without looking at what you’ve just written, write down what you think you’ve just written. Ideally there should be one sentence for each paragraph, and the sentence should restate the paragraph’s argument. We’ll call this the memory outline.

Step 2: Reverse outline the section you wrote: i.e., read each paragraph you’ve written, and in a sentence or two, summarize the argument of each paragraph. We’ll call this the actual outline.

Step 3: Compare and contrast both outlines and ask yourself questions like: How well does each entry in my memory outline compare with the corresponding entry in my actual outline? Are entries aligning or not? Do entries in my memory outline bring up new ideas that are not featured in my actual outline? What from my memory outline needs to be included in my actual outline? Are the points of my argument logically organized or do paragraphs need to be moved around?  Is there a logical flow from paragraph to paragraph that builds up to an overall argument or are there gaps in logic that I must address first?

Step 4: Take notes and develop a plan to revise your work.

Often, it is difficult to recall what you have just written, particularly when your subject matter is complicated and nuanced, as most academic writing is. Because human beings can only remember so much, composing a mirror outline forces you to write down only that which stood out, i.e. that which your mind has deemed most important. In this way, mirror outlining forces you to act and think like a reader, only repeating back what is most memorable and important. When the mirror outline does not match the information as presented, then you know that you need to revise. If you find reverse outlining a particularly useful revision strategy, try these variations of reverse outlining: “Is your first draft disorganized? Reverse outlining as a method to discover structure,”  “Lost Your Work’s Narrative: Reverse Outlining and Storyboarding as a Method of Reordering Your Work’s Structure,” and “Where are my section breaks? Reverse outlining as a tool to find your section breaks.”