So You've Finished a First Draft: Reverse Outlining
But you aren’t sure how to start revising? Revising is probably the second hardest part of the writing process, only surpassed by actually starting to write. Reverse outlining simplifies the task of revision by letting you see immediately where you can improve your paper. This handout contains a checklist of the most critical elements of an essay as well as tips to strengthen missing or unclear parts.
Note: I call the parts of an essay points and elements because I find the term paragraph too constricting. All strong essays include claims, evidence, and analysis, but do not necessarily divide them into an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
Take another sheet of paper and use this rubric to outline an essay you have finished by writing down the sentence(s) that accomplish each of the bulleted points. You can also use different colored pens or highlighters to mark each of these different parts.
- Provides a brief but concise background on the text(s) you will be discussing or analyzing
- Presents an observation, position, point of view, etc, that you are going to defend in the essay (thesis)
- An conclusion that you came to, but others might not necessarily agree with
- Presents the first point you will analyze/defend (commonly referred to as claims or topic sentences)
- Evidence from the text(s) that illustrates why your claim is logical, reasonable, or true
- Generally each claim requires two or more separate pieces of evidence to be convincing
- Analysis of why the evidence supports your argument in your claim and how it relates to the thesis
- Presents the second point you will analyze/defend
- (Optional recommended transition) How and why this claim relates to your previous points
Repeat for any and all points
- Sums up all of your points and thesis
- Leaves readers feeling satisfied
Now that you’ve completed reverse outlining your essay, you might notice some elements are missing or unclear. Here are a list of strategies and questions you can use to help you strengthen the important parts of an essay. The examples are from an essay with the basic prompt: “Is Shakespeare’s Hamlet insane?”
Missing/unclear thesis statement:
Pinpoint exactly what you are trying to argue. Generally this is some debatable conclusion that you came to, one that other readers might not necessarily agree with. For example, this writer came to the conclusion that Hamlet is completely sane, but the lengths he goes to is essentially insanity. Check out the “Three Story Thesis” handout for more in-depth help.
Example: Although Hamlet is entirely capable of reasoned thought and exercises great logic in his actions and speech, his passion for revenge against Claudius ultimately leads to tragedy. His ambition, which blinds him to the suffering of those near him, can be interpreted as true madness.
Ask yourself why your thesis is valid. The thesis makes a broader observation that you are going to defend, while the claims serve as subpoints where you analyze specific parts of the text.
Example: Hamlet fails to realize the destructive nature of his ambition, compromising his morality and destroying those near to him.
Ask yourself what occurs in the text that made you make your claim. Sometimes it’s also easier to work in reverse. You find a bunch of related evidence and make a claim from them. Check out “Quote Sandwiching” for help on incorporating evidence.
Example: Hamlet notices the clown singing while digging a grave and asks “has this fellow no feeling of his business? ‘A sings in grave-making.” Horatio replies that “custom hath made it in him a property of easiness” (5.1.61-62).
Ask yourself why the claim you make and evidence you choose is significant. What was particularly striking or resonant about the passages you chose to analyze? What is the overall significance of the evidence you chose to analyze? Or more generally, why did you choose that evidence to put in your paper?
Example: The irony of this exchange is how easily it could be applied to Hamlet himself. Hamlet’s business is his duty to his father and his own honor, but the actions he takes has made murder and lack of compassion an easy task for him.
Deciding how you order your points comes down to what you think is the logical order. Chronological analysis of a text is usually a good start. Generally, your strongest claim, evidence, and analysis should be the last to conclude your essay on a strong point. Transitioning involves thinking about how your claims relate to each other and the thesis as a whole.
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