Reverse Outlines: Flip the Process to Reveal Structure
Outlining helps writers organize ideas, clarify thoughts, and create logical arguments that build on each other. That’s why writers are often told to create an outline before they write. But outlining before writing can feel limiting and overly restrictive—it can even cause people to avoid starting!
Did you know you can get the benefits of outlining without restricting your initial creative flow? Create an outline after you’ve written. A reverse outline can help you reveal and improve structure. It also gives you the flexibility to add to your work when you get new information and reinforces that the first draft isn’t the only draft you’ll write. As long as your finished product creates a linear, logical structure for your reader, it doesn’t matter what the process looked like while you were writing.
What Is a Reverse Outline?
A reverse outline is exactly what it sounds like: an outline based on a draft you’ve already written. By waiting to create an outline, you’re free to write your first draft as it comes to you, then search for patterns later. When you reverse outline, you review your work and pull out the main ideas and supporting points. Then ask yourself: Are these the points I want to make? How can I make these points even stronger or clearer?
Why Use a Reverse Outline?
A reverse outline will yield a condensed version of your argument so you can evaluate it more easily. It will show you whether your logic, support, and flow deliver your intended message.
A reverse outline can help you identify and address potential problems in your writing:
- Weak organization
- Unnecessary repetition
- Vague thesis statements
- Unclear or unsupported claims
- Disjointed or disconnected analysis
- Awkward flow and stilted transitions
It’s tough to spot these issues as you’re writing. If you organize while you write, you might end up overthinking and creating a draft that sounds choppy or disjointed.
How to Make a Reverse Outline
Start with reading your document from the beginning. As you read, summarize the main point of each paragraph. Remember, this is a reverse outline. You’re not making an outline for what you plan to write; you’re analyzing what you actually wrote and using that information to reveal structure and flow. Resist the temptation to generously interpret or mentally revise what’s on the page. If you’re not faithful to what you’ve written, your reverse outline won’t be as helpful.
Here are a few tips to make reverse outlining easier:
- Number the paragraphs of your document
- Review your document paragraph by paragraph
- Identify the main topic of each paragraph
- Write the main idea in the margin or on a blank page
- List the supporting points for the main idea
Once you’re done, you’ll have a detailed outline summarizing what you wrote. The next step is to use your reverse outline to revise your writing.
How to Use a Reverse Outline
A reverse outline will help you see the big picture of what you’ve written, and help you evaluate structure and flow. It’s hard to do this while you’re reviewing—it’s even harder to do while you’re writing.
Use your reverse outline to help you recognize if your writing wanders off-course or includes unsupported conclusions and leaps of logic. When you spot weaknesses, use your outline to revise and restructure until your draft and your goals align.
When reviewing your outline, ask yourself these questions:
- Do your ideas flow logically from one to the next?
- Can your readers easily follow your main argument?
- Do your supporting ideas relate back to your main point?
- Do your paragraphs repeat the same idea?
- Are your paragraphs too long or too short?
Check that your ideas and arguments support your main thesis and that you clearly guide the reader to your conclusion. Don’t be afraid to move paragraphs and trim sections that have drifted off-topic. You may even want to rework your thesis to incorporate the new insights you’ve uncovered while writing.
Write Better by Working in Reverse
If you’ve been struggling to apply old-fashioned writing advice, this article is your permission to try something different. There’s nothing wrong with a non-linear approach; you can adapt classic writing tools like checklists and outlines to match how you think and write. If you would prefer to let your creative flow run free in your first draft, rather than strangling it with structure, set yourself up for success by laying out the big picture before and after the initial draft.
- Reverse planning: First, set out your goals, steps, and timeline.
- Pre-writing checklist: Before you write, list writing tips you want to remember while writing.
- Reverse outline: After your first draft, make a detailed outline summarizing what you wrote to provide clarity during review and help you identify areas to improve.
Refresh your writing process by working in reverse—it may be just what you need to propel your writing to a higher level.
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About the Author
Ivy B. Grey is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.