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Writing Center

Reverse Outline

A reverse outline is exactly like an outline you would do for your paper during drafting, except it’s performed with a complete draft. While outlining before a first draft can help you organize ideas, sometimes things change as you write them. The purpose of a reverse outline is to help you understand the structure of the paper you've already written. Seeing the parts of the paper organized into a bulleted list can help you consider how to effectively arrange a paper, locate areas with repetition, and identify potential gaps. It is a helpful tool to use during revision in order to address a number of concerns. 

How to Perform a Reverse Outline

Part 1: Reading

Doing a reverse outline is simple--it just involves slowing down the pace of your reading and trying to identify the points that you want to get across to your readers, and taking notes. To start, here is a sample essay:

Wallace (DFW) begins his speech with a disarming, self-deprecating joke that reads as if it were not included in his prepared notes: “If anybody feels like perspiring, I'd advise you go ahead because I'm sure going to.” The effect of this joke is not only a stylistical, seemingly off-the-cuff entrance to the speech but also a way to relate to his audience: for them to see that he is both human and nervous (public speaking being universally terrifying). Wallace is acutely aware that his audience knows who he is and why he was invited to speak at graduation but is wary of misrepresenting himself as someone better than or different from them. This self-awareness sometimes presents itself as ethical and stylistic, but at other times fuses the heart of his argument with its inseparable emotion. DFW proceeds after delivering the obligatory greetings to tell his audience about two young fish that were asked by an older fish “How's the water?” The two fish continue swimming a bit before asking “What the hell is water?”

This question, as the speech's eventual title suggests, is a framing one. Its position at the forefront of the speech is no accident. It ensures that audience members attempt to (albeit briefly, since Wallace provides the answer) decipher the parable and in turn engage with the subject matter. Like the joke, the story's purpose proves to be multiple. This rhetorical question does more than begin a metaphor that comes full circle with the speech's closing – it also proves to be central to Wallace's reasoning, the logos of his entire argument. Moreover, as his claims begins to manifest and his argument takes shape, Wallace is increasingly cautious of misrepresenting himself (see his opening lines), worrying that his audience might be predisposed see him as the “wise, older fish explaining what water is to [the] younger fish.” And so Wallace takes the first of many meta-moments to address his story and its purpose with hypophora, concluding: “merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about” and that he is not the wise, older fish.

While clarifying the foundation of his argument, Wallace simultaneously shows immense respect for the intelligence of his audience. He later states that his speech has “a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away” but in acknowledging that he is using (but trying not to overuse) rhetoric and explaining how it works he is being more rhetorically effective. Such moments of awareness including not only himself, but his text, his argument, his occasion – the entire rhetorical triangle and all of its additions – is common of Wallace's writing and speaking. Here, Wallace builds trust with his audience members through an ethical appeal, proving that he is not trying to disguise his intentions with stylistically evocative choices like the employment of what he calls “one of the better, less bullshitty conventions” of the commencement speech genre. Moreover, characterizing the story  as “less bullshitty” is a wonderful use of plain style, relating himself to the audience. (He swears! He’s just like me!) It is important to Wallace that his audience trust him to be an honest speaker, one they have things in common with – it catalyzes his claims.

Part 2: Taking Notes

As you read the essay, identify the main purpose or point in each paragraph, then identify any supporting points in the paragraph. As you read, write these down in a list in the order they come up in the paper. See the below example:

  • Paragraph one: Give background and analysis of the beginning of DFW’s speech
    • -Address Wallace’s initial decorum
    • -Address ethos and who Wallace is as an individual and speaker
    • -Introduce the parable
  • Paragraph two: The fish parable and its purpose
    • -Arrangement of the story/its effect
    • -Purposes of the parable
    • -Wallace’s wariness of misrepresentation.
  • Paragraph three: Awareness and ethos
    • -Wallace showing respect for his audience
    • -The purpose of that ethical appeal
    • -The language of the appeal
    • -Importance of trustworthiness

Using a Reverse Outline to Help You Revise

Once you complete writing a reverse outline of an essay, take a look at your list and reflect on the structure of the essay. Consider asking yourself some of the following questions:

  • Does the overall order of paragraphs make sense? Do readers get the information they need early in the essay that will help them better understand what comes later?
  • Can parts of the essay be reorganized or moved around to be more persuasive?
  • Do any parts seem redundant or repetitive?
  • Do paragraphs have enough supporting details?
  • Are there any gaps in the essay? Are there things you wanted to talk about but don't have in your list yet?

[Activity written by Luke Useted, May 2015]