Reverse Outlining

Photo by Wes Peck via Flickr CCA friend reached out this weekend because she was absolutely mired in a bear of a final paper. She didn’t want me to edit it (and I definitely don’t edit exams or papers earlier than the dissertation and/or journal submissions), but to give some advice on how to handle what had become unwieldy. My suggestion? The reverse outline. Here’s what I wrote:

To reorient yourself to the question, I suggest grabbing a notebook and your paper, and making an outline of what’s actually in the paper.

This feels weird, because it is. But just follow your paper, making headers and subheaders as you go, simply recording what you’ve got. When you’re done, check out the outline and see if it makes sense as one piece. Are there parts that seem like they’re in the wrong spot? Does the conclusion reiterate the main point from the opening? Do the subsections follow in a logical order (whether you are going chronologically or by schools of thought or any other categorization)?

Now write an ideal outline with all the same elements you’ve already got, but in an order that seems to make better sense, and use that to move your bits of text around like legos. This part’s gonna make a big mess—it’s like cleaning a closet. Somehow, you’re like “Yes! Clean closet!” and then realize you’re sitting in a pile of random shit that you have to put somewhere else. It’s okay. It’s gonna come together.

NOW, having moved the parts, go through and edit to smooth it. You might even want to print a copy to set next to your computer and retype the whole thing. That thought process lets you edit on the fly and keeps you from being too dedicated to the words and phrases you’ve already got (and old undergrad syllabus I found recently says that the most dangerous functions of a computer are “copy and paste,” because no sentence has a right to exist).

When you’re done with this step, you should hand it off to someone else to read for a “cogency check.” By now, things should be nice and orderly, even if you had to slay a few treasured phrases and sentences along the way. Ta-da!

Photo by Wes Peck via Creative Commons.