Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Reverse-Outline

The Reverse-Outline is a method of reading analysis and editing, especially useful in self-editing, in which one thoroughly studies a draft and formulates a summary outline.  Pre-draft outlines are critical in professional writing, but even after they are used, the draft result can contain errors in order and focus.  The Reverse-Outline is a powerful tool for identifying and correcting these errors.

< I learned this method at the OAC, but have seen it taught elsewhere, so I'm assuming there's no copyright issue.>

I've found that the Reverse-Outline is most useful for short, one-page documents with limited focus: op-eds, cover letters, internal business emails, public business memos, marketing scripts, stock letters...and more.  A Reverse Outline for such short drafts can often be written in the mind, without having to commit the summary to paper.  This makes it extremely efficient for effective editing on-the-fly.

The method:  Study a short, approx. one-page draft, and write/think an outline of its essential points.  These points should be formulated into clear, grammatically correct sentences which accurately summarize the material.  Points can cover one or more paragraphs, depending on the flow and focus of ideas.  A one-page document will typically contain 3-5 main points.  If you find more than 7, then either you're not thoroughly essentializing the material, or the draft itself is overly complex.

For example, following is a Reverse Outline for the current top story on CNN.com, Deported bin Ladin Widows, Daughters Leaving for Saudi Arabia.  It's about a 2/3 page document, so I anticipate 2-4 points.  Writing Reverse Outlines of news articles is good practice because news stories are (usually) already essentialized, making the main points easier to tease out:

  • After the end of their detention in Pakistan last week, members of Osama bin Laden's family are now being deported to the country of their choice: Saudi Arabia.
  • One of the widows provided details about how their family moved into and around Pakistan with the help of friendly Pakistanis.

I have been using the Reverse Outline method throughout the writing of this article.  After I finish a new section, I look back over the previous sections, form a Reverse Outline in my mind, and confirm that the ideas flow in some kind of logical order.  The method isn't full-proof, but it did allow me to complete this one-page article to my satisfaction.  Try it out.

--Dan Edge