Saturday, July 18, 2009

Reverse Outlining

Sometimes, you know you need to revise a piece of writing, but you're just not sure where to start or what to do. Perhaps you have received comments and feedback, maybe your organization is unclear. Revision can feel intimidating if your document is long and/or if the changes you must make are substantial. To rise to this challenge, I recommend "reverse outlining." Here's what to do:

1. Print out a copy of your draft. In the margins, number each paragraph of the text.

2. Get a blank sheet of paper.
At the top, write the word "Thesis" and then leave some blank space. Then, create numbered spaces for each of your paragraphs (see figure below). Leave enough space between each number to write a sentence or two.

3. Step outside yourself.
Although you are the author of your draft, for the purpose of this exercise imagine that you are not.

4. Locate the central argument or thesis. Read the first couple of paragraphs of the document. If it is a particularly long document, such as a scholarly article or a dissertation chapter, you may need to read the entire introduction. Can you identify the main point of the paper? If yes, write that main point next to the word "Thesis" on your sheet of paper. If no, one of the first tasks of your revision should be to strengthen and clarify your thesis!

5. Read the first paragraph of your paper. Can you identify the main point of that paragraph? What is it about? How does it relate to your thesis? Write the main idea of that paragraph next to the words "Paragraph 1" on your paper.

6. Repeat this step for each paragraph in your paper. You are effectively creating an outline of the paper as though you were reading it to comprehend its content. As you go, be on the look out for paragraphs that have no clear point, paragraphs that contain multiple arguments, and paragraphs that lack clear connection to your thesis.

7. Use the outline you have just created to guide your revisions. Now that you have a concise snapshot of your content, it should be easier for you to identify gaps in your argument, see how to usefully reorder paragraphs, and recognize what content needs to be cut or added.

8. Go for it! Save your old rough draft on your computer. In a new version of the document, you can now begin cutting, pasting, moving text, and adding to your draft.