How to Reverse-Outline Your First Draft

By Mark Nichol

You know that producing an outline is an effective strategy for helping you organize your writing. Whether the content is a novel, an interview, a review, or any other form of prose, preceding the actual writing with some sort of framework — a hierarchical vertical list, a bullet list, an interconnected web of words or phrases — provides a structural scheme.

But have you ever used a reverse outline?

A reverse outline is an evaluative tool you create after you’ve written the content. Although any kind of outline is suitable for this task, for your first reverse outline, use the traditional roman numeral/roman alphabet structure.

If you’re reverse-outlining a novel or an essay of more than a few pages, start with a single chapter or a section so you don’t overwhelm yourself.

Number each paragraph. On a separate sheet of paper, or in a new online file, list the main point (I), followed by the ancillary points (A, B, C). Rinse and repeat, on or in a single document, for each paragraph.

Once you’ve completed the outline, review it and determine whether a paragraph is weighed down by more than one point, whether the points you’ve identified are the ones you want to emphasize, and whether any points are superfluous or misplaced.

In addition, consider whether the outline’s organization, and by extension the chapter or article’s organization, reflect your intentions. If not, decide whether you need to revise your intent or the output. (Hint: It’s much easier to adapt a topic or a thesis statement to a piece of writing than the reverse.)

Reverse outlining helps you reorganize not only paragraphs but also the entire work. On a paragraph level, determine whether you need to combine, divide, insert, delete, or move. For the work as a whole, revise as necessary to build an argument or carry a narrative.

Repeat the process as necessary for a longer piece — and if, for example, an extensive article has five sections that you’ve reverse-outlined in as many steps, reverse-outline the whole article as well.

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7 Responses to “How to Reverse-Outline Your First Draft”

  • June Freaking Cleaver

    Great idea! I’m going to try that with a short story I am just about finished with!

    It’s a great way for me to determine whether my dialogue is sufficient, and if I have enough backstory.

  • Daily Tips

    Nice and useful information about Reverse-Outline.

  • Stephen

    I’ve never heard of reverse-outlining before, but it sounds useful so I will give it a try.

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Huh, I never thought of doing that. The way I write, it sounds like I use this piece of information. I love days like these. Thanks for sharing this piece with us Mark!

  • Kathryn

    OK, five-in-a-row: interesting idea, I think I’ll use it on the next brief I write. There’s one upcoming that is going to be a bear and a half; this might actually help me get a handle on it. Thanks, Mark!

  • Melanie Van Wyhe

    I don’t outliine or plot at all —it gives me writer’s block!! I get an idea, a character, or a situation and go. It’s much more exciting that way and it turns out what came out of me on my first novel all fit together in ways I would have never thought of myself. I just wrote down the story God gave me?

  • Julie

    Great advice! Effective way for a substantive editor to help an author organize his/her ideas.

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