Reverse Outlines

Reverse Outlines

Feb 15, 2013
Revising a paper can be a tricky process, particularly when it comes to looking at the overall structure of your work. There are clear guidelines when you have questions about what to do at the sentence level: you can always just crack open a textbook to see if you've conjugated a verb correctly or put that comma in the right place. But there is no easy set of rules that will help you determine if your paper is organized well. How can you tell if your argument flows logically from paragraph to paragraph or if you're missing an important idea that will leave your reader confused?
This task is especially difficult when you've been working on a paper for a long time. When you've been researching, writing, and rewriting, it's hard to find the objective distance you need to analyze your own work. Often you know what you want your paper to say, but you can't really tell if you've managed to get those ideas down on the page. Fortunately, there are several methods out there to help you determine if the overall structure of your paper is sound. One of the most effective of these is the reverse outline.

What is a reverse outline?

You probably already know what an outline is - it's the summary you draw up before you start your paper. Outlines can be broad, with a just a few notes about what should go in each section of a paper, or they can be more detailed, with paragraph-by paragraph lists of topic sentences, specific pieces of evidence, and transitions. Outlines are an important part of the writing process. They help ensure that your paper will have a strong overall structure that will make sense to the reader, and they also help you keep track of the work you plan to do. Ideally, you should make an outline before you write any paper - even a short essay-to help keep your paper clean and focused.
So what's a reverse outline then? Reverse outlines are done after the first draft of your paper is complete. Instead of creating a paper from an outline, you're going to create an outline from a finished work. Starting at the top, you go through and reverse engineer your paper so that you have a paragraph-by-paragraph summary of your work. It's the best way to get a good look at the underlying structure of your paper and it will help you analyze both individual paragraphs and the overall success of your work. Once you have a reverse outline, you'll be able to see what kind of big changes can be made to improve your paper.

How to make a reverse outline

A reverse outline should include many of the same elements as a regular outline, but instead of thinking them up as you go you'll be pulling them straight from your paper. Start by numbering the paragraphs, then fill in the important information from each paragraph. This information can include:
  • The topic sentence. What is the main topic of the paragraph? Is there a clear topic sentence? Make a note if a paragraph has more than one topic or if the topic is unclear.
  • Evidence. What type of evidence is included in the paragraph? This will vary depending on the type of paper. For a history paper you might have statistics or a quote from a primary source like a letter; for an English paper you might have quotes from a primary source like a novel or poem.
  • Length. Take note of how much long each paragraph is. You can either count the lines or estimate the amount of space on the page it takes up.
  • Transitions. Finally, look at the transitions at the beginning and end of each paragraph. You can simply note the transition words you used, or for a more detailed reverse outline you can describe how each paragraph moves into the next (for example, are you adding more evidence, providing a counterpoint, or moving to a new topic?).
Once finished, a reverse outline should look pretty much like a regular outline, but with more detail. When working on the outline, make sure to leave space so you can take notes when you do your analysis.

What to do with your outline

Now that you've gone to all the trouble of making your reverse outline, it's time to put it to good use. By analyzing your outline, you can find weaknesses in your paper and determine how best to fix them. There are two main issues you want to tackle.

Analyze within each paragraph

Start by looking at each individual paragraph. Overall, how strong are they? Does each paragraph accomplish its goal? Does it stay on topic? Look for issues like confusing topic sentences and arguments that stray away from the main topic. Also look at the length-is it appropriate for the topic of the paragraph? If it's an important topic is should take up more space on the page than a paragraph that discusses minor points. On your outline, make notes by each paragraph that detail potential problems that need to be addressed.

Analyze between paragraphs

Next, you need to analyze the overall structure of your work. Do the paragraphs move logically from one to the next? Does the organization make sense? Are related paragraphs and ideas grouped closely together? Look for gaps in your argument or paragraphs that seem out of place. When you're marking the changes that need to be made, don't be afraid to move whole paragraphs around. It can be scary to hack up your work into pieces, but often a reverse outline will show you a better way to organize your paper (that is the point of all this work, after all!).
After you've analyzed your outline, you're ready to start making changes to your paper. Work from the notes you've made to redo paragraphs and rearrange parts of your paper. Then, if you're still not satisfied, you can start the process all over again.

Other tips

  • If you have time, it can also be extremely helpful to have someone else make a reverse outline of your paper. While reverse outlines are a good way for you to get some distance from your work (which is necessary for good editing), often it's hard to analyze your own writing. Having someone else make a reverse outline will show you how a reader sees your argument
  • Feel free to get creative with your outline. There's no wrong way to diagram your paper, so use flowcharts, pictures, or any other method that will help you visualize your ideas (just be sure that your outline captures all the information listed above).


We don't have enough room to show you a complete reverse outline, but here's an excerpt from a paper on The Great Gatsby along with an example of what the reverse outline would look like.


... Despite their wealth and privilege, the Buchanans show themselves to be morally bankrupt, and Nick makes it clear that he despises everything they stand for.
However much Nick comes to detest the world of Tom and Daisy, it's clear from the very beginning of the novel that he finds Gatsby to be a mostly sympathetic character. When Nick first introduces the reader to Gatsby, he starts by declaring his hatred for the world he is writing about, but notes that "Only Gatsby [...] was exempt from my reaction" (p.3). He goes on to explain what it was that endeared him to Gatsby: "it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again" (p.3). While Gatsby seeks to emulate the Buchanans of the world, he can't hide his true spirit of hope, which is something that Tom and Daisy certainly never embrace. Tom and Daisy create the world as they want it to be, so they have no need for hope or dreams, but Gatsby truly believes he can someday acquire true happiness.
Of course, by the end of the novel it's clear that Gatsby's dream of happiness was hollow and unattainable...

Reverse outline

Paragraph #3
  • Topic: Nick's attitude toward Gatsby.
  • Topic sentence: "However much Nick comes to detest the world of Tom and Daisy, it's clear from the very beginning of the novel that he finds Gatsby to be a mostly sympathetic character."
  • Evidence: Quote from The Great Gatsby, p. 3.
  • Length: 11 lines
  • Transitions: Moves from paragraph #2, which describes Nick's feelings about Tom and Daisy, with the transitional phrase "However much Nick comes to detest the world of Tom and Daisy..." Also sets the stage for the next paragraph that will discuss how Gatsby's dream failed.
  • Notes: Paragraph is a little short and should include a quote from a secondary source. Also, it could be moved to later in the paper after the paragraph that explains Gatsby's background and why he has this dream of being with Daisy.
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