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Posted by on Jul 27, 2017

Tips for Organizing Your Ideas (Reverse Outlining)

Let’s imagine you’ve collected some evidence, you’ve got a rough idea for your paper, and you’ve begun to write an introduction that broadly summarizes your feelings. How can you best arrange your work for maximum effect? How can you lead you reader through the essay so that they are nodding their head (hopefully) as they read?

We often use the analogy of leading a blindfolded person through an unfamiliar house. If your house had three different levels, all on the first floor, you’d probably warn your guest that there were steps up and down. You would give them a heads up that you were transitioning from a carpeted area to a tiled area, perhaps. You’d certainly tell them that you have a dog (and if it is friendly!).

Writing an essay is similar to this experience. You have to proactively think about things from your reader’s perspective.

Reverse outlining can help.

Many students have been taught to outline first, using a design like the following:

I. Introduction

II. First Piece of Evidence/Discuss

III. Second Piece of Evidence/Discuss

IV. Third Piece of Evidence/Discuss

V. Conclusion/Restate Argument

This approach can work, but it is predictable and cliched. If you are in a more advanced writing class, this approach might not work given the level of sophistication expected.

Reverse outlining suggests that you first write a chaotic first draft – beginning to end. Collect your thoughts and snippets of argument/evidence. Then outline the crappy first draft you’ve written, limiting descriptions to a sentence or two.

For instance, an early draft concerning Spiderman might include the following ideas:

  • Spiderman as teenage everyman
  • The change in focus from action to love story
  • A clash of class: rich guy’s son vs. the orphaned poor guy
  • A moral epic: from ‘great power’ to Black Spiderman
  • Comparison of villains in different Spiderman films

Rather than some tired, generic take on the subject of Spiderman, laying out the above ideas without any preconception will allow us to:

  • See connections amongst ideas.
  • Arrange the ideas in a logical progression.
  • Allow us to see the necessary transitions to get from idea to idea.

For instance, if “Spiderman as teenage everyman” came before “the change in focus from action to love story,” we would want to write some transitional sentences to get from the idea of a ‘teenager’ to that of a ‘love story’. Here’s an example:

“Teenagers in love have been a favorite subject for writers and audiences – from Romeo and Juliet toWuthering Heights to Hairspray – so it is no surprise that the Peter Parker that becomes a hero has a less than ideal love life.”

Notice how we transition to the topic of love by reaffirming the point that Spiderman is a regular teenager.

So reverse outlining accepts that your thinking will be chaotic and creative, and suggests that bringing order from a list of interesting ideas and observations might be easier than forcing ideas into a preexisting order.

It’s just another tool that you can use. Write your ideas on flash cards, type them onto pages in a Word document – whatever makes the most sense for jumbling your ideas and then looking for connections.

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