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“Do you know what a reverse outline is?”

By Daniel Gross

When you’re struggling to move forward in a paper, you can always move in reverse. Let’s say you have a draft, but you’re stuck. You’re not sure if the reader can follow each step of your argument. Now could be the time to swing by the Writing Center. But another option is a reverse outline, which is basically what it sounds like––an outline that comes after you’ve drafted an essay.

A reverse outline isn’t written on a separate sheet of paper. Instead, it’s scribbled in the margins of the draft. You write down the key points of your essay next to each paragraph. As you do, you start to see how the argument builds and shifts. It can be a versatile tool to illuminate your thesis, tighten your structure, and make things flow faster than Niagara. Let’s look more closely at what a reverse outline can do for you.

How is a reverse outline different from a regular outline?

Regular outlines are written before essays begin. “I. Introduction and thesis,” you might write, continuing: “II. Contextualize my topic.” Let’s pretend you’re arguing that the United Nations should protect the Arctic giraffe from dangerous oil drilling. Your outlined third paragraph might illustrate the problem you’re addressing by trying to show that the Arctic giraffe is in danger of extinction. Alternately, the third paragraph could show that the UN has a legal mandate to protect endangered species in general (which implies that you’ll later argue that the Arctic giraffe, as an endangered species, also merits protection).

One problem with this sort of outline is that it suggests that your ideas will be fixed before you start writing. But your essay structure can and should shift as you figure out what you’re really saying, which is why some writers don’t find outlines helpful.  If you don’t outline before you write, you’ll still need to figure out if your structure is working. Is the reader following me? Is my structure logical? Does the essay flow?

That’s why we need reverse outlines.

How do I do a reverse outline?

Let’s pretend that based on my regular outline, I write the following three paragraphs after an introduction.

[2] In 1980, the United Nations intervened to protect the Hawaiian camel. Hawaiian camels had long been threatened by intensive pineapple harvests. When the local farmer collective introduced a plan to double their cultivated land, scientists argued that the plan would seriously affect local camel populations. The UN, responding to this news, suspended pineapple expansion through 2020.

[3] The Arctic giraffe lives along the temperate sea coast of Greenland. Thanks to their long necks, they thrive in the shallow waters of the continental shelf. Their heads, adorned with blue fur, rest just above the water to catch migrating fish which swim by.

[4] In the past 5 years, Arctic giraffe populations have fallen drastically. A June 2005 Nature paper,  “Where have all the Arctic giraffes gone?,” raised a note of alarm in the scientific community. Its authors argued that oil drilling was to blame. Because drills produced destructive sound waves in the waters off Greenland, giraffes were adapting their behaviors by lifting their heads fully out of the water. Because these giraffes became significantly more conspicuous to passing fish, the scientists argued, these giraffes lost their main source of food.

Now I have my basic ideas down on paper, and I want to see if they make sense. Time for a reverse outline. We start with paragraph 2. What’s it about? It seems to give us a historical example in which the UN intervened, perhaps as a comparison to the case of the Arctic giraffe. We’ll assume that the introduction and its thesis told us the essay’s central claim––that the UN should protect Arctic giraffe species. With this in mind, we might scribble the following into the margin:

Illustrates historical case of UN species protection

For paragraph 3, we might try:

Introduces background of Arctic giraffe

For paragraph 4, we could write:

Shows that oil drilling may cause population loss

Now that we know the structure of these early paragraphs, we can re-examine the essay for clarity. First, we might ask: does a reader understand why it’s important that we know about the Hawaiian camel? The answer is probably not. Using the note we wrote––illustrates historical case of UN species intervention––we might write a topic sentence that makes the paragraph’s function more obvious, like: “The United Nations has historically protected species endangered by human behavior.” Now readers will understand that the paragraph is establishing precedent for the present case of the Arctic giraffe.

The function of paragraph 3 is more obvious, since it offers general information that relates to the species of interest. A different question is relevant, however: is this the best location for the paragraph? For instance, if this became paragraph 2, readers could be certain that the entire essay focuses on Arctic giraffes. But we’d also notice that the paragraph about Hawaiian camels wouldn’t make sense. As such, we might need to move the paragraph on Hawaiian camels to later in the essay. (Another question that we might want to address: does the reader know why background is important? If not, that might be worth mentioning).

Paragraph 4, finally, shifts the reader’s attention to the particular threat of oil drilling. It seems to lead up to the central claim that the UN should intervene to protect the Arctic giraffe. But does the reader realize the importance of this point? Because the entire argument hinges on the link between drilling and shrinking giraffe populations, we might want to highlight the point. A new topic sentence to start off paragraph 4 could address this, for instance: “Clear evidence has emerged that humans may be harming giraffe populations.” This makes the problem obvious and allows the following paragraph to address it.

What else can I do with a reverse outline?

A reverse outline for a complete essay has other advantages. Perhaps you notice that one paragraph doesn’t make sense in the context of its neighboring paragraphs. This tells you that the paragraph can be eliminated, or needs to be rewritten. Or perhaps two paragraphs have the same function in your reverse outline. Then you could differentiate the two to make sure you aren’t repetitive.

Or you might realize that your thesis and introduction don’t capture the breadth and shape of the essay that follows. Now that you see this, you can revise your opening lines to fit the essay you’re actually writing. In cases like this, you can see the real value of reverse outlines. Not only can they clarify points within paragraphs, they can provide the insights you need to clarify the very core of your argument.

If you won’t do it for the sake of your paper, do it for the Arctic giraffes.

Daniel Gross ’13 is an English concentrator and a public radio enthusiast.

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