Reverse Outlining

REVERSE OUTLINING is a strategy for both reading and writing. Essentially, you will create an outline of a text that already exists, whether that text is your essay draft or a difficult reading. In reverse outlining, you will want to ask: what is the writer doing and saying in each paragraph? If the text is longer, you may just want to ask: what is the writer doing and saying in each section? When you apply this to your own draft, reverse outlining will allow you to see how your essay is organized and any potential gaps in thinking, logic, or connection back to your larger focus. When you use reverse outlining to help you better understand a difficult or longer text, it can help you gain a broader perspective of how a whole text works. 

Try doing this as a peer response activity and swap your essays with a classmate or writing tutor.

STEP 1 | SUMMARY STATEMENT Write out the argument of the whole essay in 1-2 sentences. In 2-4 additional sentences, identify the purpose of the work and who is the intended audience. 

STEP 2 | REVERSE OUTLINE For each paragraph, in the margins of the essay, write 1 sentence that captures the point of the paragraph. Here are a few templates: 

  • In this paragraph, the writer presents/summaries/analyzes/synthesizes/ X (argument, claim, idea) in order to Y. 
  • In this paragraph, the writer reviews X aspect [findings, methods, overview] of Y scholar’s(s’) work in order to show M. 
  • In this paragraph, the writer compiles X (data, theories, concepts) in order to agree with/extend/refute Y.

STEP 3 | Compare your REVERSE OUTLINE and your SUMMARY STATEMENT and consider the following questions:

  • How well does the writer articulate and support the argument?
  • Is the essay focused enough to be useful for the argument? 
  • Does the writer clearly name and explain the purpose of the writing project? 
  • Does the writer identify sources, disciplinary areas, and disciplines that they are working with clearly enough so that another reader can understand the writing goals and argument?

A Link to a PDF Handout of this Writing Guide