How to Revise Your Writing: Building a Reverse Outline

Revising and editing your own writing is really really hard.

It’s hard because you’ve put time and thought (and tears and sweat) into crafting those words. Looking closely at them with a critic’s eye can feel intensely vulnerable!

It can also be hard, though, because we’re rarely taught specific ways to edit. We know we should do it, but we don’t really have the tools to do it well.

I can help! Learning about specific editing processes and concrete methods to use when revising can make the whole experience so much easier – and more productive.

Today, I’d like to share a simple revising technique that has broad usefulness: the reverse outline!

A reverse outline can help you to:

  • Focus on the content of your writing. What did you actually write? Is it what you intended to write? If not, why did it change? There may be a good reason for the pivot, or you may want to shift back to your original direction.

  • Assess flow. Do paragraphs and sections connect together in a way that will make sense to your audience?

  • Assess argumentative logic. Does each paragraph or section support your argument? Is each paragraph relevant to your central focus?

  • Highlight repetition. Have you covered the same points more than once?

  • Identify gaps. Is there anything missing that your audience needs to know?

  • Assess organization. Is related information grouped together? Is evidence presented in a way that will help readers follow your argument?

How to build a reverse outline:

1.   Number each paragraph and the corresponding summary sentence. (This step is optional.)

2.   Summarize each paragraph briefly!

  • Whatever works well for you: one sentence? A few bullet points? Whatever you choose, make sure it’s truly as brief and specific as possible. (Real talk: it’s very hard to be this concise. You can do it!)

  • Place these brief summary sentences either in the margin next to the paragraph or in a blank document or on a blank sheet of paper.

3.   Consider the outline you’ve created!

  • You can now evaluate your writing using this streamlined outline. Think about each of the elements above: content, flow, argumentative logic, repetition, gaps, organization.

  • If you’re having a very hard time creating a brief enough summary for a particular paragraph, ask yourself:

    • Are there too many ideas in that paragraph? Could it be reorganized or split into separate sections?

    • Does the paragraph lack focus or not really make a contribution? If it’s not an essential paragraph, could it be cut entirely?  

That’s it! Now you know how to build a reverse outline. Next time you have to edit your own writing, try using this strategy and see how much easier it becomes.

Reverse outlining isn’t the only way to revise, of course, but it can be a really useful strategy to have in your toolkit. Using structured processes to revise and edit is almost always less painful than just reading over your work and hoping you find errors and identify ways to improve it!

(Bonus: you can use the same technique to help you take notes when reading work by others, too! More on that in a future post.)

Have questions? Want support with revising or editing your work? Looking for an editor with fresh eyes? Let’s talk :)