Reverse Outlining

The best kept secret for making sure your papers are well organized and “flow.”

Outlines organize the ideas presented in a paper. Many people think of outlining as a first step in the writing process, but it can also be a productive tool for revision. Reverse outlines are created after a draft has been written, allowing you to see if your paper is well organized, where you need additional (or less) research or discussion, and if your paragraphs “flow.”

Follow these steps to create a “Reverse Outline” to help you revise your essay. You will need an extra sheet of paper (or a blank document on your computer).

  1. If you had to sum up your whole paper in just one sentence, what would it be? Write this sentence at the top of the blank page.

    CONSIDER: Does your thesis statement reflect what you’ve written in this one sentence? If not, you may want to revise your thesis to match the content of your paper more accurately.

  2. Number each paragraph of your essay. On your separate page, write a ONE sentence description of each paragraph next to its corresponding number.

    CONSIDER: If you struggled to write a description in only one sentence, you may have too much dissimilar information in the paragraph. Consider dividing the paragraph so that you can express it in one sentence.

    CONSIDER: Does each paragraph have a topic sentence reflecting what you wrote for your paragraph description? If not, revise or add a topic sentence that will help your readers identify the main idea of each paragraph. If you have trouble writing topic sentences, start with the phrase, “This paragraph is about__,” but remember to delete this first part if you decide to keep the sentences in your final draft.

    CONSIDER: Is it clear how each paragraph description sentence relates to your thesis/goal of the paper? If not, you need to take it out or revise it so they are related.

  3. Look at the order of your one-sentence paragraph descriptions; think about them in relation to each other.

    CONSIDER: Do you have paragraphs dealing with similar information scattered throughout your paper? You might reorganize so like information is together.

    CONSIDER: Is the current order effective? Consider various organizational structures: local to global; problem to solution, chronological events, weakest to strongest evidence, etc. What will work best for this paper?

    CONSIDER: Do your topic sentences make sense in their current order? Does one idea follow logically from the one before it? Do you need to add transitional ideas or phrases anywhere?

  4. Now that you have topic sentences clearly relevant to your thesis and paragraphs ordered appropriately, go through each paragraph sentence-by-sentence.

    CONSIDER: Are there sentences that don’t seem to fit? You may need to eliminate or move them or clarify what their connection to the topic sentence is. See our MEAL Plan handout for more information on paragraph development.

When you finish with these steps, you should have a paper that makes as much sense to your reader as it does to you!

To print a copy of this handout, please click here.