Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Reverse Outlining . . . But Didn't Know to Ask

Rebecca Nowacek, WAC Program, UW-Madison
To help students improve the organization of their papers, it's helpful to have them outline the draft they've written (a "reverse" or "after-the-fact" outline, done not before writing a draft but after)--so they can get an aerial view of the sequence of topics in their draft.  In this handout for students in an introductory literature course, the instructor, Rebecca Nowacek, explains how to create a reverse outline and how to use it while revising.

What is a reverse outline?

If a regular outline is something you write before you draft out your paper, a reverse outline is something you do after you write a draft.

Why should I reverse outline?

The reverse outline can be an extremely useful tool for helping you see the big picture of your paper, and can be especially useful for papers in need of major reordering of paragraphs or papers filled with paragraphs that have too many ideas in them and therefore don’t hold together.

How do I make a reverse outline?

Go through the paper and number each paragraph. Then on a separate sheet of paper, write #1 and the main point (or points) of that first paragraph. Then, on the next line write #2 and the main point(s) of the second paragraph. Go through the entire paper this way. When you have gone through the entire paper, you will have an outline giving you an overview of your entire paper.

Then what?

Now look carefully at your overview, asking yourself the following questions:

  • Are the paragraphs properly focused, or are there multiple main ideas competing for control of a single paragraph?
  • Now that you’ve identified the main point of each paragraph, does the topic sentence reflect that point?
  • Are some of the ideas in a paragraph extraneous and should they therefore be deleted from the paper? Or do they simply need to be moved to a different part of the paper? (Many times you may find that a random idea tacked onto the end of, say, paragraph five really belongs in paragraph eleven where you fully develop that idea.)
  • When you look at the outline as a whole, does the organization of the paper reflect what you promised in your introduction / thesis?  If the answer is no, consider whether you need to revise the thesis or revise the organization of the paper.

If you’re having trouble making or using a reverse outline, please come talk with me. I am more than happy to help!