Last week, I suggested that starting a writing project with an outline is a terrible idea. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect that every writing project will flow seamlessly from decide on a topic to research the topic to create an outline and, finally, to write the paper. But that’s what we’re taught in school, right? After you’ve done enough research on your topic, you should be able to create an outline of each of your major points and then just write it up… right?
In my experience, most authors who start with an outline get stuck and feel that they can’t move forward until the outline is more or less filled out. Authors generally assume that they can’t write a paper until they know their main points, so they spend an enormous amount of time researching, thinking, and being stuck in the outline phase. Instead, I suggest a reverse outline.
How a reverse outline works
1. As you research, write down your notes, thoughts, and reactions. Force yourself to write throughout the research process, even if it comes off as more of a journal entry that you wouldn’t show to anyone else. Most people can’t think through everything before they write; they think as they write.
2. After you have several pages of your own written thoughts, arrange them into paragraphs and sections, roughly in the order that you might present them in an article (Literature Review, Methodology, Analysis, Findings). It’s okay if not everything lines up or makes sense just yet.
3. Give yourself some time. Start fresh one day, and read your collection of roughly organized, written thoughts.
4. In a separate document, create an outline of those written thoughts. Read one paragraph at a time, ask yourself, “What is the major point that I’m trying to make in this paragraph?” Try to condense the paragraph into one sentence, or at least one point.
5. Once you have paraphrased what each paragraph is trying to say, you’ll have a document that lists each of your major points thus far. That’s a reverse outline.
What do you do with a reverse outline?
Use the reverse outline as a working outline. Examine each of the points, and move them around in the order you might present them in a paper. Add sub points and notes of what you’ll elaborate. Insert supporting quotes.
Then, use the reverse outline to re-write the paper.
What’s the advantage of the reverse outline?
With a traditional outline, all of your thoughts are stored up in your head, half-formed and detached from actual words. It’s difficult to manipulate or examine thoughts. A traditional outline asks you to create organization from a jumble of thoughts because, let’s face it, it’s hard to have everything figured out before you start writing.
A reverse outline acknowledges that you often don’t know what you’re writing until you’ve written, so just start writing. You put your jumbled thoughts into words on paper. Once the thoughts exist (even half-formed) as words, you can manipulate, sort, elaborate, and organize them.
Then, you can begin re-writing your paper, following the reverse outline you’ve been working with. The writing process will start to feel like a positive feedback loop. Research, leads into writing, followed by a reverse outline, which spurs on more writing. Writing inevitably reminds you that you need to research something else. Further research leads to more writing, which you should follow with a reverse outline.
Don't worry – the loop does end! When you finish the paper. But I recommend that you create one last reverse outline. Double-check that each paragraph makes the point that you think you’re making, and that each point builds on the last, all contributing to the overall thesis of your paper. There’s no better way to ensure you’re making a cohesive argument than to reverse outline your finished paper.
So, the reverse outline helps you start your paper, get unstuck in the middle of the paper, and double-check for coherence after the paper’s finished. It’s one of the most useful writing tools that I use for every one of my clients' writings, as well as my own writing.
I’d like to offer you a challenge.
Take some piece of half-formed, abandoned writing. Read each paragraph slowly. In a separate document, create a reverse outline of what the piece says. It usually takes me less than 5 minutes to reverse outline a single page of writing. Remember, you’re just condensing the point of the paragraph into a sentence or so. Then, examine the reverse outline for ways that you could expand or organize those condensed points.