RS_Structure_Mirror Outlining

Sometimes when you finish a section of writing, you might feel a deep pang of anxiety — Did you say what you wanted to say? Did you say something different? Did you forget to mention something? Mirror outlining is a technique that helps you remember what you wanted to write and compare it to what you’ve actually written. In fact, it has several advantages: (1) it helps you remember what has just been said, (2) it helps you organize all of the thoughts you included, (3) it helps you make sure to include all of the important arguments and insights you want to include, and (4) it helps you find and mention loose strands — ideas, arguments, analyses — that you might have forgotten to include in that heady rush of writing. Mirror outlining gives you space to jot down any ideas you came up with just after you’ve finished writing a section, and it helps you discover what is most memorable about each paragraph.

After you’ve written a section, open up a new document, and, without looking at what you’ve just written, compose a mirror outline. Now, go back and compare and contrast the mirror outline to the writing. Did you capture the essence of each paragraph? Did your outline only capture a fragment of what you were saying? Did your outline bring up new ideas that your paper does not have yet? Finally, draw up a plan to revise your work.

In the following example, we have included a draft of an introduction to a dissertation proposal and the mirror outline the author composed. As you’ll see, the author has not only included the mirror outline but also the observations they made after they compared and contrasted both documents.

Original introduction:

Chris Iannini and Susan Scott Parrish argue that the effort to create knowledge about the Caribbean led to a proliferation of primarily natural history texts, and the development of the circum-Atlantic world of letters. In turn, this rampant communication of knowledge across the Atlantic contributed to the Enlightenment, to the “modern European ways of knowing” (Parrish 7). The result was that the “natural history established institutional channels and discursive conventions through which West Indian colonists began to take part of that world” (Iannini 14). In contrast, the English readers of these texts, mainly learned individuals, “engaged in a sustained and nuanced meditation on the implications of these transformations for the British Empire…because they seemed like intensified versions of the kinds of social, cultural, ad economic change that were simultaneously occurring at home and as a result of circumatlantic commerce (Iannini 23).

Missing from Iannini’s cadre of texts, however, are the non-traditional, the non-natural history texts written about the Caribbean for British audiences: travel narratives, poems, letters, and novels. Parrish argues that these texts “included in varying ways descriptions of natural events, places and particulars” and that “all of these written genres…made up what is here broadly called the cultures of natural history in the Anglophone Atlantic world” (19). By default, all the texts written in the Caribbean and about the Caribbean reveal elements of the natural histories. No text written about or in the Caribbean can avoid at least some display of Caribbean nature.

In brief then, all of the texts produced in the Caribbean and exchanged throughout the transAtlantic world feature descriptions of the plants and animals found in the Caribbean. Iannini argues that because authors of natural histories could not directly insert their feelings and thoughts into the text, they resorted to imbuing their depictions of plants and animals with meaning following the Early Modern tradition of emblematic representation. Iannini claims that ”emblematic techniques retained an important function within scientific discourse well into the eighteenth century. Printed natural histories continued to rely on a kind of reconstituted emblem that I call the ‘specimen-as-emblem’” (26). Objects possess a similar importance in non-natural history texts albeit via a different path of logic. Although Parrish notes that authors who produced non-natural histories about the Caribbean were better able to emphasize the observations and feelings of the author, Lynn Festa argues that many of these texts routinely employed sentimental tropes via the use of sentimental objects, objects that are attributed with personal significance and personality, and that allow for a singular and personal relationship to that object. Moreover, the sentimental language used to discuss these objects reveals the “uncertain boundaries between subject and object” (Festa 12). So, in both the case of the natural history and the non-natural history, depicted objects – plants and animals – promise a hidden or symbolic meaning.

What I think is happening in both natural histories and non-natural histories about the Caribbean is that there is a collapse of both traditions – the imbuing of objects with emblematic meaning and the tendency to assign sentimental value to certain objects. The result is that during the eighteenth century, objects used as emblems gained a life of their own and resisted the control of the author. In the Caribbean texts I will consider, these objects resisting the author’s control and revealing the harsh realities of Caribbean society – the brutalities promised in the wilderness as well as the brutalities of plantation life – the practice of slavery and the threat that slavery posed to the humanity of all who were involved. These objects also suggest the ease with which persons and things can be confused.

The texts I will consider in this dissertation range in genre from Aphra Behn’s early modern proto-novel Oroonoko, to the mid-eighteenth-century long-form poem “A General Description of the West Indian Islands” by John Singleton, to John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years Expedition to Maria Edgeworth’s 1801 novel Belinda. My design in choosing these texts is to consider a variety of text types that feature West Indian emblems and consider what the emblems are doing in the text. Additionally, I am concerned with how the emblematic and sentimental representations of these objects change over time. Parrish and Iannini both note that texts about the Caribbean contributed to the development of Enlightenment methods and systems as well as a culture shaped by natural history writing and the Atlantic slave trade. So my closing question for the whole dissertation is simply how did subjects make knowledge about and represent Caribbean nature and how did this knowledge and the writing about it change over time?

Mirror outline:

  1. Opens with Iannini and Parrish — circum-Atlantic world of letters contributed to the Enlightenment and to the developing identity of the British Empire and British subjecthood.
  2. No one is talking about non-natural history (i.e. non-traditional) texts. [You omitted the display of Caribbean nature — Why? It didn’t seem to make an impact. But it is important. How to fix this?]
  3. All texts produced in the Caribbean feature descriptions of plants and animals and they are used as emblems to covertly talk about the enslaved. And in texts that were not natural histories, instead of emblems, the sentimental object was used as a vector for authors and characters to express hidden meaning.
  4. Objects used as emblems gained a life of their own and resisted the author’s control — they revealed the harsh realities of Caribbean life. [i. Forgot to mention the collapse of emblematic tradition and sentimental objects. I think I need to slow down the sentimental object and the emblem explanations — give each their own paragraph and walk it through better. ii. Also forgot to mention the ease with which things and people can get confused. iii. Definitely a logical gap between this paragraph and the one above it.]
  5. I will consider Behn’s Oroonoko, Singleton’s A General Description, Stedman’s Narrative, and Edgeworth’s Belinda. I chose these texts because they differ in genre and because they all have emblems/sentimental objects. I want to know how these objects and their representations change over time. [i. I forgot about the Enlightenment! And how these texts contribute to the Enlightenment! And I totally didn’t even mention the closing question. ii. Is the closing question even a good question? I’m not sure. I think it’s better to ask what are the emblems, what are the hidden meanings behind the emblems, and what insight can we draw from these meanings? Also maybe how are these emblems represented? Like Singleton is really negative about the cocoa plant (and thus enslaved African women) and Stedman is all about the beauty of the cocoa plant (i.e. enslaved African women).  I’m not sure if “changing over time” and “how did subjects make knowledge and represent etc.” are questions I want to ask.]


  • When the author compared the rough draft to the mirror outline, they located problematic areas in the text. For example, the author routinely forgot to mention points in the mirror outline that are integral to the dissertation as a whole — Caribbean nature in paragraph 2, the collapse of emblematic tradition and sentimental objects in paragraph 4, and the Enlightenment in paragraph 5. As the author reflected on the mirror outline, they realized that they had forgotten to mention these key elements and terms (sentimental object and emblematic tradition) because in the introduction, these key elements and terms were not sufficiently unpacked/defined. In other words, the author needed to take more time and take up more space to fully explain each of the key concepts and terms in the introduction. The logical gap the author noticed in paragraph 4 of the mirror outline (where the author forgot to explain what it means that emblems “gained a life of their own”) emphasizes that they need to take more time and do a better job of walking the reader through everything in the introduction.
  • Mirror outlining is a useful tool because it helps writers take a step back from their writing and investigate exactly what is in the text. Because writers often think as they write their first drafts, they do not have the bandwidth to make sure that they are explaining their thoughts and ideas fully and logically. Added to that, as scholars compose large documents like the dissertation, it is often difficult to remember everything that they want or need to include. In addition, even when a scholar rereads something they have just written, they might be so involved in their thoughts that they do not realize that they have excluded an important point.
  • Mirror outlining allows writers to take a step back because it forces them to recall what they have written. Because human beings can only remember so much, composing a mirror outline forces writers to write down only that which stood out, i.e. that which the mind has deemed most important. When the mirror outline does not match what the author knows to be the most important information in the work, then the author knows that they need to revise.
  • Mirror outlining is useful because it can help authors see their own writing from the outside. In other words, it can help a writer act and think like their readers — they repeat back what is most memorable about what they have just written. When a writer does not repeat back an idea or concept that they know is important, then they need to revise their writing to make sure that the piece of analysis or thought is memorable for the reader.


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