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 (a syllabus penned by one of my favorite professors in undergrad says that the most dangerous word processing functions 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.

About Letta Page

Founding Associate Editor and Producer (Former) The Society Pages Senior Managing Editor (Former) Contexts Magazine Independent Academic Editor and Writing Consultant In Twitter terms, I self-present as a disarmingly earnest editor, translator of academia, portmanteuse, and domesticated roustabout. More professionally, I might say: I am a jargon-slayer and book doula for hire. The founding associate editor and producer of The Society Pages and former senior managing editor of Contexts magazine (the public outreach journal of the American Sociological Association), I have more than two decades' experience in academic editing across a range of disciplines. I've edited and written copy for publications from Oxford University Press, Routledge, Taylor & Francis, W.W. Norton, the University of Chicago Press, Cambridge University Press, and many others, along with dozens of journals. As a sort of fun "palate cleanser" (trust me, when you're editing books on neoliberalism and genocide, always good to have a fallback), I write copy for organizations like Stand Up! Records. I also have a background in the visual arts and was a founder of First Amendment Arts (now CoExhibitions) in Minneapolis, MN. I hold degrees in history and classical studies from Boston University and an art degree from the University of Minnesota. Click here to read my Friday Roundup posts on The Editors' Desk. Click here to read my contributions to Citings & Sightings.