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Your Paper is a Toolbox: The Art of the Backwards Outline

Your Paper is a Toolbox:

The Art of the Backwards Outline

 

Ok, you’ve written your paper. It’s done! But it doesn’t feel quite right. You ask yourself: “Is the ‘flow’ off? Do I prove my thesis? Do I stay on topic?” You answer these and similar questions with, “Well…kinda...I think so…”

Often, this means your paper is “nearly there” but isn’t held together tightly enough; you make all the right arguments and have the right points, but they aren’t clearly connected to the thesis.

This is where the toolbox idea comes in. Think of your thesis or main idea as your project, and your body paragraphs as the tools you need to complete it. The way in which you implement these tools will determine the look of the final product.

So how do you make sure you’re using your tools most effectively?

Construct a backwards outline. What’s that? It’s an outline of your paper as it exists now, after it’s all finished. Just write a phrase or sentence that accurately summarizes the main idea of each paragraph. This shouldn’t be hard to find—either your topic sentence, your concluding sentence, or some combination of the two should give you precisely this information. (Never mind what you want to see as the main idea – we’ll get to that later. For now, just write down what’s actually there.)

 

(Very Basic) Example:


I. THESIS:

Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul uses intimate first-person narratives and heartfelt solutions to break through teenagers’ loneliness and defensiveness to provide them with ways to cope with daily hardship.

II. BODY 1:

Intimacy of specific details in first-person narratives relates author to reader.

III. BODY 2:

Solutions are not belittling advice from adults, but real, heartfelt experience.

IV. BODY 3:

Even when the stories are about experiences some teens cannot relate to, reading about them in a familiar context prepares them for such experiences.

V. CONCLUSION:

The style of Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul encourages its young readers to take its lessons seriously, thus preparing them for the harsh world that they face every day.

 

Now, let’s see how these tools are being used. Ask yourself: “What does each body paragraph do to ‘prove’ or help explain my thesis?” Does it complicate an assumption? Does it exemplify a change? Does it explain the meaning of or reasoning behind a certain element of the topic? Does it explain why a certain concept is important in the greater context of the topic? … In short, is there a “so what?” for each paragraph?

If the answer is unclear, then it’s time to clarify. Explain specifically what the examples and analysis in each body paragraph have to do with your central claim. What to they prove/illuminate/explicate and how does this contribute to your general argument?

 

(Very Basic) Example TAKE II:

I. THESIS:

Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul uses intimate first-person narratives and heartfelt solutions to break through teenagers’ loneliness and defensiveness to prepare them for the harsh realities of the real world and provides them with ways to cope with daily hardship.

II. BODY 1:

Intimacy of specific details in first-person narratives relates author to reader. So What? … Through sheer honesty about common experiences, the authors are able to reach out to teenage readers and encourage them to pay attention/take the stories to heart.

III. BODY 2:

Solutions are not belittling advice from adults, but real, heartfelt experience. So What? … Teens are more likely to take advice from “their own kind” than to be forced into the submission of authority.

IV. BODY 3:

Even when the stories are about experiences some teens cannot relate to, reading about them in a familiar context prepares them for such experiences. So What? … If these topics were addressed in a context outside of teenage familiarity, they would be of little to no interest.

V. CONCLUSION:

The style of Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul encourages its young readers to take its lessons seriously, thus preparing them for the harsh world that they face every day.

 

The ideas following the “So What”s above function as (drafts of) new topic or concluding sentences for their respective paragraphs. They remind the reader what your examples have to do with the original claim, rather than just providing information and expecting the reader to sort it out and make that extra step to your argument all by himself.

Now, each of the body paragraphs functions as a tool which not only makes a claim related to the thesis, but ALSO shows us just how it is related and why it’s important. Each paragraph, in its own way, brings something to help you complete the main argument, just as well-used tools help you to complete a project.

 

Pam Krayenbuhl

Student Learning Center, University of California, Berkeley

©2008 UC Regents

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.