Is Your First Draft Disorganized? Reverse Outlining as a Method to Discover Structure.

The work of writing a first draft focuses primarily on getting your ideas out on the page. Often, this results in drafts that are long and unwieldy, in which the writer can’t quite tell if the Structure of their draft makes sense, or exactly what the structure is. Reverse outlining can help you clarify the structure of your text by offering you a fresh perspective on what you’ve written. The exercise helps you edit, reorganize, and streamline your work. Using a reverse outline, you place yourself in the reader’s position and look at the flow of what you have. Reverse outlining is a tool that can be used at varying stages of the writing process—everything from revising sentences within a paragraph to revising paragraphs, sections, and chapters within a dissertation.

Reverse outlining can help you determine:

  • If a given section is actually saying what you thought you were saying
  • If your points are clear and presented in a logical order
  • Whether the argument supports your thesis
  • Whether important ideas are buried within a paragraph
  • The direction that you should go with your draft
  • Where there are gaps in your argument
  • Your paper is actually arguing for a different thesis, or is making a different argument than you originally intended. You might even prefer your new argument/thesis! …Or not. Either way, your reverse outline can help you rework the paper accordingly

Here are the suggested steps for reverse outlining:

Step 1: Choose a section of your work where you can’t quite make out the structure.

Step 2: Number your paragraphs starting with the number 1.

Step 3: Identify the topic or purpose of each paragraph, and in the margins, take brief notes about/summarize what each paragraph is arguing in a sentence or two. If you do not want to print out your paper, open a new document, and write down your answers here. If you can’t get a paragraph’s claim down to 1-2 short sentences, the paragraph needs focusing. If this is the case, make sure you write down everything that your paragraph is saying (i.e. all of the points the paragraph makes.)

Step 4: Open a new document, then copy and paste your notes on each paragraph so that they resemble an outline. Be sure to maintain their order (1, 2, 3, etc.).

Step 5: Analyze this outline by paying special attention to how each paragraph advances the section’s argument. Ask yourself questions like:

    • What is the paragraph actually saying?
    • Is this what I want the paragraph to say? If not, what do I want the paragraph to say?
    • Are there logical gaps within the paragraph, and if so, where are they and what needs to be filled in?
    • Does each paragraph naturally flow from one to the next or is there a logical step (i.e. another paragraph or sentence) missing that would better support the section to which these paragraphs belong?
    • If you found that your paragraphs (or even one paragraph) are saying several things/feature multiple arguments, this is your chance to break your paragraphs up and reorganize them so that they sequentially lead to your conclusion.
    • Be sure to write your observations down as well as your proposed changes so that you don’t forget.

Step 6: As you analyze the reverse outline you have created, you should jot down reminders of how you plan to revise in the future. Will you move paragraphs around? Will you add new paragraphs to make up for gaps in your logic? By creating a plan for revision, you will ensure that all changes work holistically for the entire text. For example, if you suggest a revision and later realize that the suggestion does not work, you can rethink your plan without having wasted time making senseless revisions or having erased text that was, in fact, necessary.

Step 7: Reorganize the text according to the revised outline and your notes by moving paragraphs around and adding or removing sentences and paragraphs.

Step 8: Read through to check for cohesion. Are you satisfied with the changes? Is there anything you missed?

As we mentioned above, reverse outlining allows you to put yourself in the place of the reader as you review your writing. When you do this, you will untangle the organization of your essay and be able to reorganize your analysis and evidence to improve the overall logical flow. Reverse outlining is a particularly helpful tool for revising because it affords you a bird’s-eye view of a section or the entire document. In other words, with reverse outlining, you can develop a clear idea of the whole document and discover how to make each part fit better. 

If you can’t seem to figure out how you should reorder your paragraphs, no worries! Here’s another reverse outlining techinique: “Lost Your Work’s Narrative: Reverse Outlining and Storyboarding as a Method of Reordering Your Work’s Structure.”

Also take a look at: “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.”