Revising in Reverse: How the Reverse Outline Can Work for You

We recently conducted a workshop on reverse outlining, and it surprised me to learn that many of our community members had never heard of this revision strategy.

Although I don’t recall when I first learned about it, I do know reverse outlining now represents a critical step in my own revision process.

 Let’s dive in…

 What is reverse outlining?

Reverse outlining is a revision strategy you can use to help you examine your paper’s organization to ensure your writing follows a logical sequence of ideas. The process involves extracting your paper’s main ideas, usually captured in topic sentences, and evaluating their sequence in a separate document. The aim is to identify places where you should consider reorganizing or expanding.

How to create a reverse outline

  1. Choose either a section of writing or use the complete draft to review. If you’re writing a paper with multiple sections, such as a literature review, it’s often best to choose one section at a time rather than outlining the complete draft.

  2. Create a numbered list in a blank document.

  3. Copy and paste the main idea of each paragraph into the blank document. Keep the main ideas in the same order they appeared in the original document.

What to look for when you review your reverse outline.

  • Ensure each main idea relates to the paper’s overall purpose.

    Writers often stray from their paper’s purpose, especially when writing long and complex documents with layered arguments. To stay focused, read each main idea and ask yourself if it relates back to the overall purpose. If not, consider removing it.

  • Look for repeated ideas.

    If you notice you have repeated a main idea, consider combining paragraphs or revising paragraphs that repeat the idea.

  • Limit each paragraph to one main idea.

    If a paragraph contains more than one main idea, consider separating them into distinct paragraphs. You may need to move these paragraphs to ensure your main ideas follow a logical sequence.

  • Logical sequence of main ideas.

    If you cannot follow the sequence of your ideas, then your reader will also struggle. Make sure each main idea logically follows the other. One way to enhance your paper’s coherence is to repeat key words or phrases to show how the ideas connect together.

Put it into practice.

I know that all sounds fairly straightforward in the abstract. Let’s look at an example to see how it looks in practice.

I created this example using an APA 7 Student Sample Paper.

The purpose of this paper was to argue that the student evaluation of teacher (SET) represents an imperfect measure of teaching.

I extracted the main idea of each paragraph of the paper and created an outline. Take a minute to read through the list.

  1. SETs are commonly used to assess teaching performance despite conflicting evidence on their validity.

  2. One way to ensure that teaching assessments are more responsive to the demands of teachers’ local contexts is to develop those assessments locally, ideally via a process that involves the input of a variety of local stakeholders.

  3. While historical attempts to validate SETs have produced mixed results, some studies have demonstrated their promise.

  4. However, a wealth of scholarly research has demonstrated that SETs are prone to fail in certain contexts.

  5. Much of the available research paints a similar picture – that SETs are prone to fail in certain contexts.

  6. Several modern SET studies have also demonstrated bias on the basis of gender and other identity markers that do not affect teaching quality.

  7. The goal of presenting these criticisms is not necessarily to diminish the institutional importance of SETs – It is also to make the case that, despite the abundance of literature on SETs, there is still plenty of room for scholarly attempts to make these instruments more useful.

What stands out about this list?

I noticed how the second main idea seemed out of place. This main idea could be moved to appear after the fifth main idea, which focuses on the importance of certain contexts. The second item also shifts to a new idea about developing assessments locally. The writer may consider separating this point into a separate paragraph elsewhere.

I also noticed how the fourth and fifth main ideas repeated the same point—that SETs are prone to fail in certain contexts. The writer could consider combining the evidence presented in these paragraphs into a single paragraph or changing the main idea in the fifth paragraph to better articulate their analysis of the evidence.

It’s amazing how I can see organizational issues so much more clearly when looking at a reverse outline. I hope you’ll find this strategy useful as well! If you want to look further into this process, here are a few additional resources on using reverse outlines to revise drafts:

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