Reversing the Outline

Reverse Outline

So reverse outlines are super simple, and super powerful. Basically, instead of writing a detailed, paragraph-level plan before you start writing, you do the writing first and then you work out how it should fit together.

Reverse Outlines weren’t invented by me, but by the always helpful Rachael Cayley from the University of Toronto on her Explorations of Style blog. Rachael is passionate about paragraphs (yes, she is) and paragraphs are the basis of her process of Reverse Outlining.

I’m more passionate about writing in stages, and this fits in, for me, in a wider set of writing practices and principles that includes Robert Boice’s generative writing (Professors as Writers), Anne Lamott’s ‘shitty first drafts’ (Bird by Bird), and my very own writing cycle. So I thought there was just enough new to make it worth writing my own blog post and not simply referring you to Rachael’s.

I have written elsewhere:

But what if ‘I have a shit scrappy pile of bits that gestures towards being a chapter’ was an actual stage? A stage you could achieve. A useful place to get feedback on structure and content? Where you could ask, ‘Does my idea make sense?’ and ‘Have I done enough reading?’ That would be good.

And what if, ‘I have a shitty first draft, but it is actually a full draft’ was an actual stage. A stage that was worth opening a bottle of champagne to celebrate? A useful place to get feedback on coverage and organization? Where you could ask, ‘Does this adequately cover the field?’ and ‘Can I cut those irrelevant findings in chapter 2 out yet?’ That would be fantastic.

It is in those first two stages of the writing process that Reverse Outlines can be useful.


So the first thing is to say, keep the planning light and loose. Now this can be totally scary for some people.

“What do you mean, no planning. Don’t you know that planning is essential for being prepared and a good student and getting my thinking into order? If I don’t plan, it’s going to be a total mess!”

But, actually, in my work helping people to write better, I find that one of the biggest causes of writer’s block is when people are fighting the natural flow of the argument and writing, trying to get it to reflect a pre-written plan.

Paragraph-level plans can be a way to avoid writing. For many people, the writing process is scary. That’s why they try to research and think and plan for as long as possible, and then skip over all the horrible getting words on paper bits as quickly as they can, to the bit where they edit and polish. A plan you make to try to avoid writing as much as possible… is probably not going to help you write.

But even if you plan well, a too-detailed plan can get in the way of your writing. There are a number of reasons why this can be.

  1. A plan is a different genre to an academic journal, chapter, thesis, or conference presentation. All of the listed kinds of text are written in sentences and paragraphs, what I call ‘full academic prose’. This has one kind of flow, and allows you to express and develop certain kinds of arguments.
    A plan, on the other hand, is a list. It is written in fragments, in note form. This has a different flow, and allows you to express other kinds of arguments.
  2. There are supposed to be lots of gaps in a plan that you later ‘fill in’. However, the ‘filling’ is actually the full academic prose, and it might be a quite different shape (see above).
  3. When we write plans, we can leave a gap to fill in later that is actually a central step in our argument. A plan looks ‘complete’ just because we ordered our ideas together in a list. A list is not necessarily an argument. When we write it out in full, we realise just how much of our thinking we have skipped over.

Paragraph-level plans can also be a way to avoid having to edit. I also find that many doctoral candidates, they are afraid to try out the kinds of writing we do at Shut Up and Write or Thesis Boot Camp, because they don’t believe they know how to edit, so it’s really important that their writing requires as little editing as possible.

Plus, a lot of doctoral candidates find it really difficult to read the feedback they get from their supervisors, that doesn’t distinguish between spelling and punctuation comments, and structural comments. Reverse outlines are amazing because they give you a way to do a structural edit without touching the small final polishing steps.

So Reverse Outlines are not hard, because they take something you are already excellent at, detailed plans, they just put them where they are most useful, after your first draft.


Okay, enough of the preamble. How do I reverse outline? Simple.

  1. You print out your text.
  2. You grab a pen and number every paragraph, starting from 1.
  3. You underline the main point of each paragraph. (Ideally this is in your topic sentence, but this is an early draft so it might be in the conclusion, or the middle).
    1. If the point isn’t written down yet, you might have to write it in.
  4. You then scan the outline. In a short piece, you can do this by eye. In a longer text, it probably means writing or typing out the number and point of each paragraph.
  5. Take a break and think about your argument and structure.
    1. Did you pose a question or hypothesis? Have you actually addressed that?
    2. Are you developing your argument chronologically, thematically, or dialectically?
    3. What are the findings or outcomes you want to prove through your writing?
  6. Come back to the list.
    1. Group related content.
    2. Order content by your logical development so that you answer your research question and are able to prove your argument.
  7. Go back to the orginal text and move the paragraphs around so that they are in the new order.
    1. Add in the topic setences now you know what the main point is.
  8. Take another break.
  9. Come back and read through the text. Check that it makes sense.
  10. Finally, check that it flows.
    1. You will probably need to add new cohesion phrases to signpost the movements of your argument.

And there you have it! Making a paragraph level plan, after you have already written you draft, means you can write quicker, let the ideas come out in scholarly prose, and then you can check that it makes logical sense and progresses towards you overall contention.

And because it’s so simple, you can easily customize it so it works for you. Leave a note in the comments if you have your own spin on Reverse Outlining.


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