“There is no such thing as good writing. There is only good rewriting”
- Harry Shaw
You may have heard some variation of this famous quote, or the phrase “writing is rewriting,” throughout your education. Yet in my experience, students often struggle with exactly “rewriting” is. In this article, I demystify revising by sharing one of my favorite revision strategies: the reverse outline.
What is revising?
Studies have shown that most students revise by editing spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Fixing these errors is important, but falls under the category of editing, rather than revising.
Revising, on the other hand, is more rigorous and more comprehensive. It involves restructuring your paper by adding, deleting, or re-ordering sections to make sure the paper you’re turning in is the paper you intended to write.
How, exactly, do I go about revising?
Here, I share my go-to strategy for revising, which has carried me through college and graduate school: the reverse outline. Reverse outlining can help you objectively understand and evaluate your own writing, which can be one of the hardest parts of revision.
Reverse Outlining in 5 Steps:
1. Start with a full draft. Unlike a regular outline, a plan created before you begin writing, the reverse outline is created after you’ve written your paper. I like to print out my paper (single sided, with wide margins), but you can also reverse outline directly on an electronic document.
2. Identify your thesis statement. What are you trying to argue in this paper? If you’re struggling to identify your thesis, reverse outlining can help. Follow the rest of the steps, and then rewrite your thesis.
3. Identify the main point of each paragraph. Each paragraph should have its own unique purpose. Write down the main point in the margin next to the paragraph, or in an electronic “comment.”
4. Reflect without judgment. Now that you have your reverse outline—your list of each paragraph and its purpose—you can reflect on what your paper is really arguing. Try not to judge yourself if the outline is messier than expected: cleaning up the mess is what revising is for!
Here are some guiding questions to help you reflect on your reverse outline, as well as action items for addressing them:
- Does each paragraph have a main point? If not, don’t be afraid to delete paragraphs that serve no clear purpose, though I know this can be painful! (Tip: If you’re not sure what your main point is, try filling in the sentences “the point I want to make here is…” or “This paragraph connects to my overall argument in that…”)
- Do multiple paragraphs make the same point? If so, combine them.
- Does one paragraph make multiple points? If so, you might confuse your reader. Consider splitting this paragraph into different parts, each with a clear topic.
- Does each paragraph relate back to your thesis? If not, you might delete these paragraphs, develop their relevance to your argument, or justify your digression.
- Does each paragraph lead logically into the next? If not, you may need to rearrange your paragraphs, or work on your transitions.
- Are there any gaps in logic? If so, you may need to add information or do additional research to help your reader follow the connections between the parts of your argument.
5. Revise. Now that you’ve reflected on your reverse outline, you can begin the work of incorporating these changes by adding, deleting, rearranging, and clarifying. When I’m revising, I like to cut my printed document into paragraphs, and rearrange them on the floor or a big table (tip: number your paragraphs so you don’t lose track of them). Then, I copy and paste from my old document into a new document to create a revised version.
The benefits of reverse outlining:
Revising can be intimidating. You might think to yourself, “this paper isn’t working, but I don’t know why” or “this paper is all over the place.” These feelings are normal, even if you outline before writing. As the initial mess may be unavoidable, the question is finding a clear process for revising so you can turn your mess into a masterpiece.
Additionally, building confidence in your revision process can take the pressure off your first draft. I used to obsess over every sentence, and would take forever to get words on the page because I felt like I only had one shot to “get it right.” Now that I trust my revising process, I’m less worried about perfectionism the first time around. When I’m writing a first draft, I even put a post-it on my computer that says, “just get it down”!
Cambridge Coaching was founded by doctoral candidates in English, and instruction in reading and writing is one of our particular strengths. Our tutors are published authors, as well as Ph.D candidates from the top English graduate programs in America, with most hailing from Harvard or the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop--or both.
We have a long history of helping high school, college, and graduate students become more astute critical readers and writers capable of producing their own polished academic essays. Many of our students come to us looking for help with basic composition or reading comprehension, but our expert tutors have coached our clients through everything from business English to doctoral dissertations. Whether you need to learn how to tell a participle from a pronoun, or need help making sense of Shakespeare, we can design a syllabus to suit your specific goal.
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