In yesterday’s #Acwri chat (that is, academic writing) I happened to mention that I use reverse outlining as an editing technique. A couple of people didn’t know what reverse outlining was. This post gives a great run down and method for reverse outlining, and is well worth checking out. Today I reverse outlined a chapter going into my half-written book, so I thought I’d document the process. Primarily I did this in order to see exactly what I do and why, and perhaps try to refine my reverse outlining process, but I thought it might be interesting to explain here as well.
The first thing I do is a proper edit in Word using Track Changes. This is for spelling, grammar, style, clarity, and all the other things that get changed in a regular edit. Print this copy out, with the changes visible:
During the reverse outline process I don’t do any editing – if I find things which need work I just mark them.
Then I number the paragraphs. Each section gets a letter, and each paragraph gets a number. Sometimes I might have added a note about a paragraph or section that should go in, and these get separate numbers as well:
Then, you read the whole thing, paragraph by paragraph, and note down what each paragraph is about. Paragraphs that should be split or contain two (or more!) ideas get Roman numerals for each sub-section.
I often stop at the end of each section and quickly note what order I think the paragraphs should go in, while the section is still fresh in my mind
So, at the end of this whole process I have what looks like a kind of outline. The next part is the fun part, which is writing a proper plan from the rough-draft reverse outline (although I keep the numbering from the draft!) – and then actually putting that into the practice in the chapter or article (that’s a task for next week though!) I will always print the new plan out and staple it to the draft I’ve outlined along with the rough hand-written version, then that all goes into the folder of all the drafts for my whole book.
So, what’s the point of reverse outlining? Breaking things down in a paragraph-by-paragraph way lets you look at the overall structure in a much smaller, and therefore clearer, way. Sometimes, if I am stuck, I will write out the topic of each paragraph of a post-it note and play around with the way they might fit together (another variation on this is to cut out the actual paragraphs and play with the order). It means I can do some fairly major restructuring with great(er) ease. It often just seems so obvious that the order of paragraphs (and sections) is wrong.
And, you will have perhaps noted that my first section now contains paragraphs 21, 20, and 22, and that section C has come above section B. I did this reverse outline on the third draft of editing, of a chapter from my PhD thesis which – before submission – went though several additional rounds of editing, and I never picked up that these paragraphs make more sense somewhere else. So, it’s been a successful day of reverse outlining!