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By February 19, 2013Writing about Writing

mozillaman_U-TurnRevising has always been tough for me. I always bleed out my papers very slowly, revising as I go. When the paper’s finished, then, I have a hard time changing any of it. After all of the time I put into the draft, why would I want to change it? I know that revision is a large part of the writing process, but I’ve always thought of my revision being inextricably intertwined with my writing. I revise, edit, and change my text while I’m writing it. Recently, though, I’ve began using the reverse outline, a neat little trick that has forced me to critically engage with my text and objectively judge each paragraph. It’s a trick that I began using in tutorials, but now has since changed my own writing.

This is not the first time a tutoring technique has bled into my own writing. When I first started working as a tutor, I often encountered disorganized writing or frustrated writers. In these tutorials, I suggested the writer create an outline to get their thoughts on paper and figure out how to move forward. After several tutorials, I saw just how effective the outline was. Since then, I’ve begun doing extensive outlines before I begin any paper. And I can see the difference. My writing has been clearer and more organized.

But sometimes, the outline doesn’t work. I find that, as hard as I try to stick to my outline, I will occasionally find myself exploring new points, making new connections, and reaching new conclusions. At best, this makes for a unique take on an argument. At worst, this makes for highly disorganized writing that hardly addresses the prompt at all. There’s a difference between the ideal usage of an outline, and how I actually use it in real life.

I’ve recommended writers use a reverse outline before, but it wasn’t until my Rock Star writing fellow Amanda Bryant worked through one with me during our conference. She told me that she had trouble seeing how all of my paragraphs related back to my central argument. I began by articulating my central argument, and then looked at each paragraph separately, focusing on how it worked to prove my thesis. I began to see how my argument had slowly shifted over the course of my paper. I jotted a summary of each paragraph in the margins of my paper, and by the time we were finished I had a fully functional reverse outline on my hands.

This technique was invaluable to me. I was able to see how I worked towards proving my argument, and where I could make my argument stronger. I was forced to reconsider my thesis – if I had shifted my argument, did that mean that my thesis was not strong enough? It also helped immensely with the revisions. Instead of forcing my hands to the keyboard and struggling through the paper again, I had a clear idea of what I needed to do in order to bolster my claims.

I began using this technique in my tutorials as well. Now, when a writer has a disorganized draft, we can work through the piece together. It becomes easier for the writer to see where they stray from their argument. The technique also forces the writer to reflect on their work. Many a stubborn, over-confident writer has been taken in by the reverse outline, forced to look at their own writing with an objective eye.
But I think the best part about using the reverse outline in tutorials is that it leaves the writer with a clear idea of how to proceed after the tutorial. Oftentimes, one of the worries with peer tutoring is that the writer will not take the initiative to revise their work, or does not understand the advice of the tutor. With a reverse outline, the writer leaves the tutorial with clear, tangible steps on how to revise their writing, steps they understand. This takeaway is invaluable.

Reverse outlines are not effective in all tutorials, or at all stages of the writing process. Just as the outline is helpful for brainstorming and pre-writing organization, the reverse simplifies and streamlines the revision process. It’s an effective tool for tutorials as well as a great way to start your own revision process.