The beauty of a reverse outline

academics English expository writing

Are you having trouble organizing your thoughts for an essay in your Humanities class or for an application? Have you tried outlining before writing only to feel defeated before you even get started? Do you struggle with editing a paper you’re sick of looking at, one that you know has some gaps that need to be addressed? Look no further than your new best friend—the reverse outline. 

What is a reverse outline?

We’re all familiar with an outline written before the real writing begins. You start with the introduction (including that infamously slippery thesis statement), followed by the body paragraphs explaining your argument with plenty of examples, and the conclusion, which recaps what came before and ties it all together as proof of your now air-tight argument. But how can you write a good outline when you aren’t yet sure how your essay will turn out? Many writers only know the real point they’re trying to make and how to successfully demonstrate it once they experiment with the writing process itself. The particulars often become clear only when the paper starts to take shape as a whole. 

A reverse outline takes the idea of a preliminary outline and flips the script. Instead of writing an outline before the essay itself, try writing an outline after your first draft is complete. Make a model of what you’ve already written using the same method—introduction, sections and body paragraphs, and conclusion—in order to see the skeleton of what you’ve just created. This will allow you to assess whether or not your argument can be traced throughout the essay, if transitions are present and clear, and if your essay is missing a crucial component or repeats something too often. 

Why would this help me?

If you’re like me, the part of an essay you struggle with most is starting it. If you’re relying on the traditional outline method alone, you might actually get in your own way as it forces you to map out a sequence of thoughts that you may not yet have. This can cause some arguments to go way off course, make tangents seem like key elements, and force your ideas to come across as riffs rather than elegantly entwined points. I find the best way to bang out that word count is to embrace the process of writing and accept that editing after the fact is half the job. This attitude makes the reverse outline all the more helpful as it is the first step in reviewing your work in an easily digestible way. 

Particularly with long essays, it can be easy to stray off the path and get distracted by things that don’t match up with your main argument. The reverse outline approach can help you assess whether or not certain sections are necessary. It becomes easier to see where to cut the fat and add segue sentences or paragraphs where helpful. It may also assist in figuring out how to reorder certain paragraphs or sections in ways that make more logical sense. Think of the reverse outline as a quick editing tool that is especially helpful if you’re having trouble knowing how to spot problem areas and edit for organization. If the flow of a particular section is confusing to you, it will most assuredly be confusing for your reader. 

What’s my next step?

Before trying this method with a new essay, I suggest applying it first to an essay you’ve written in the past, particularly one that has been graded and given feedback. Try your hand at the reverse outline and see if what you come up with matches the feedback in terms of organization and a convincing and consistent thesis. You don’t have to write elegantly or even in full sentences—the point is to help yourself see the general gist of where your argument started, how it developed, and where you ended up with your conclusion. 

Here’s a very basic example of the reverse outline, which you can also interpret as the tldr version of this very post: 

  1. Introduction - posing problems to be addressed (struggles with organized writing)
  2. What is it? - written after the drafted essay to check for organization, coherence, & relevance
  3. Why it’s helpful - an efficient preliminary editing tool
  4. Next steps - try it out, give example
  5. Further resources

Another method you can try is take the main sentence of each section and put them in the order in which they appear. This can also help in determining whether or not all your paragraphs or sections make sense chronologically and in conversation with each other. You may also want to treat your reverse outline like marginal notes within the essay itself. Experiment with other methods and find out what works best for you! Once you feel confident in editing your essay content based on what you’ve discovered via your reverse outline, you can move on to final edits, resulting in a much stronger and more coherent final product. 

Additional resources on reverse outlining

Wesleyan Writing Workshop

UNC Writing Center on Youtube

Purdue Online Writing Lab

Duke’s Thompson Writing Program

Emily is a PhD candidate at Columbia University in Religious Studies. She teaches Western and East Asian philosophy classes at SUNY Purchase, where she earned her BA in philosophy.

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