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 OutlineHere 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.