Tidying-Up Your Academic Writing: The Magic of the Reverse Outline

by Melissa MacAulay

Published at 2016-09-21

Could your academic writing use a good de-cluttering?


While doing structural editing for a client—especially with graduate students’ theses or dissertations—I’ve often found myself using the same little trick when faced with overwhelming walls of meandering academic text. Essentially, this trick involves using MS Word’s comments feature to reduce these huge swathes of text into tiny, bite-sized tags, and then dealing exclusively with these tags, rather than the text itself.


It turns out, I’m not the only one who knows about this sneaky trick. More and more academic bloggers and university handouts are singing the praises of the “reverse outline.”

The Reverse Outline: What Is It?

A reverse outline is a way of condensing a complete draft of a manuscript into a sequences of simple ideas, premises, or themes, and then re-structuring or re-organizing based on that sequence. The end result is a more streamlined draft with a greater sense of logical flow and clarity. There are a few ways you can do this, but here is the basic method.


Know your thesis statement. Before you do anything else, you should have a very clear idea of what your thesis statement is. As always, the thesis statement is key.


Take some time away from your work. This is optional, but taking a day or two away from your manuscript may allow you to approach it with a “fresh” pair of eyes.  


Ok, let’s start the heavy lifting.


Tag your paragraphs. There are a number of ways you can do this. Some proponents of the revered reverse outline recommend that you begin by numbering your paragraphs, and then writing down (preferably in a tidy table) the intended purpose of each paragraph, in a few words. If you really want to cut to the chase (like me) then just go ahead and tag each paragraph, no matter how long or short (e.g., using MS Word’s comments feature) with a one- or two-word label. Such a label might be as general as “study participants” or “introduction,” or as specific as “stakeholders’ contracts,” depending on what the paragraph is about.


Having trouble finding the “label”? Ask yourself the following: How does this paragraph begin? What information does it add? How does it end? You might find that some of your paragraphs started out talking about one thing, and ended up talking about something else. Split that paragraph into two, or delete anything that is irrelevant to its intended purpose—i.e., its label.


Examine the sequence of tags. Now you should have a nice, clean, simple sequence of ideas. Consider this very brief example sequence:


  • climate change-definitions
  • contributing factors
  • obstructions to solutions
  • future research
  • other possible solutions


The train of thought of your writing should now be much more apparent. Now ask yourself the following: Does this sequence of ideas make sense? And is each idea really relevant to my thesis statement?


Adjust as necessary. Now you’re ready to improve your work! This usually cutting and pasting paragraphs so that they are in a more logical order, or else deleting paragraphs altogether if they are tangential or irrelevant to your thesis statement. Take a look at the example sequence above. In this case, you might decide that the paragraph about “other possible solutions” should come directly after “obstructions to solutions” and before “future research.” Of course, your reverse outline will be much longer, and more complex, but the steps will be the same.


And finally…


Go back to your introduction. Now that you’ve got a handle on the flow of your work—from beginning to end—go back and make sure your introduction reflects that! If it doesn’t, then rewrite as necessary.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up Your Academic Writing

Essentially, what a reverse outline does is force you to take a close, hard look at each and every paragraph in your text—“KonMari” style. Do you really need that paragraph? If so, where is its rightful place? When done right, cutting out a paragraph that just doesn’t fit with the overall flow of your project can feel just as good as throwing out those ratty old sweaters in your closet.