Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Easy Way to Complete a Major Revision: The After-the-Fact Outline

Today, I will send off a thoroughly revised 25,000 word book that I just spent the past two weeks restructuring. This revision was greatly facilitated by a valuable strategy: the after-the-fact outline, also called a reverse outline.

I first heard of this strategy a few years ago, but it seemed too overwhelming to implement. So, I never did. However, a couple of weeks ago I received feedback on my short book manuscript (Due Process Denied), telling me it needed to be reorganized and streamlined. As I thought about how to reorganize the piece, I realized that the after-the-fact outline might be the way to go.


Reducing my paper from 50 single spaced pages to eight pages by creating such an outline would make it a lot easier to see where I was being repetitive and what I could cut. So, I went for it.

I have to say I was long loath to try this strategy because it seemed way too cumbersome. Creating an after-the-fact outline involves finding the key sentence in each paragraph in your article, listing them, and then using the outline to restructure the piece.

When people ask me for advice about writing and give me a skeptical look when I offer it, I usually gently ask them to consider trying the advice before deciding whether or not it works. I try to live by that idea as well.

The strategy comes from Tara Gray, author of the cleverly titled book, Publish & Flourish, and is sometimes referred to as a reverse outline. I have tried most of the advice in her book, and now that I have tried this piece of advice, I had to ask myself: “Why did I wait so long?”

In this blog post, I will explain the strategy and then tell you why I liked it so much. The first thing to point out is that this strategy is not a writing strategy, but a revising strategy. This strategy works best when you have a draft of your article (or a portion of your article) and are ready to rewrite it. It is best if your draft is rough, as you need to feel comfortable with the idea of deleting and/or rearranging large portions of it.

Creating an After-the-Fact Outline

Here is a summary the strategy, found here:

Step One: Organize paragraphs around key sentences. Readers expect nonfiction to have one point per paragraph. The point of the paragraph should be contained in a key sentence, supported by the rest of the paragraph. It must be broad enough to "cover" everything in the paragraph but not so broad that it raises issues that are not addressed in the paragraph. To test this idea, ask yourself the (key) question: "Is the rest of the paragraph about the idea in the key sentence?" If there are sentences in the paragraph that do not support the key sentence, move them or delete them. (The exceptions are transitions, which can remain.)

Step Two: Use key sentences as an after-the-fact outline. Extract each of the key sentences from your document and create an after-the-fact outline. This new document will contain only the key sentences.

Step Three: Use the after-the-fact outline to restructure your paper. Read the list and question yourself about the purpose and organization of the writing:

* How could the key sentences better communicate the purpose (thesis) of the paper to the intended audience?

* How could the key sentences be better organized? More logical? More coherent?

Once you have viewed your key sentences as an after-the-fact outline a few times you will discover how valuable it is to see your prose through this new lens. You will also discover there is no point in waiting to view your paper this way until you have a full draft of a writing project. Instead, you will find it useful to begin each writing session by viewing only the headings and key sentences of the section you worked on the previous day.

I found this strategy to be useful because it first allowed me to go through my book and make sure that the paragraphs were well-organized and then I was able to gain a bird’s eye view of the book and to see where I was being repetitive and what needed further explanation.

I will be sure to add this strategy to my toolkit.


  1. This strategy is awesome! I created my own version of it about a month ago after finishing the first draft of my first diss. chapter. I printed each paragraph out on its own page and then wrote the key sentence of each paragraph on a sticky note and stuck it to the page.

    I used different colored sticky notes, and as I went along, I physically did some rearranging here and there. I took pictures and the whole 9! It was a crazy-looking mess, but then I mapped out the whole thing up on a whiteboard and was really able to see the overall arc of the chapter.

  2. I sometimes have students extract what I call the "skeleton" of a paper: save a separate copy of the file (absolutely crucial), and erase everything but the introduction, conclusion, and the first sentence of each intervening paragraph. What's left should tell a coherent story (basically, the same one you'd find if you were skimming the piece). Of course, with longer, more sophisticated pieces of writing, there will be more first sentences of paragraphs that aren't also key sentences (due to longer transitions, the occasional quotation or example used as an opening gambit, etc.), but it's still a useful (and similar) exercise. I also sometimes have them experiment with outlines made up of (projected) first sentences of paragraphs. Of course the sentences change as they actually write the piece, but it can be a pretty good way to experiment with different ideas for organizing a paper (without actually writing it several different ways). If you can't write a sentence that both makes a transition and announces the topic of the new paragraph (I evoke Williams' old information/new information principle when talking about transition), there's a pretty good chance that it will be hard to write a paper in which one of the associated paragraphs follows the other.

  3. I like reverse outlining too! It is especially helpful when revising the findings section of a qualitative piece. Sometimes I have really interesting quotes that I want to include, but they repeat the same underlying point. By using a reverse outline, it helps me see where I'm putting "interesting" over "insightful." As painful as it is to cut, it helps me get rid of material that does not actually move the argument forward.

  4. I think I've backed into this by starting every manuscript in its simplest outline form by including a table of contents. I've found it particularly helpful to see where I'm really working through two different (intersecting) ideas - or manuscripts- as the manuscript evolves.