Reverse Outlining: How to Save Your Butt when You’ve Screwed Up Your Content

A man of words and not of deeds/Is like a garden full of weeds.” Benjamin Franklin

Have you ever seen an overgrown garden? It’s a sad thing. You can sort of see the shapes of the beautiful peonies, coral bells, and unrecognizable maybe-flowers beneath the tangle of dockweed, pokeweed, and random weeds that have eradicated the shape and lines of the bed.

weedyGarden  To recover it, you have to weed ever so carefully. Your instinct is to save every plant and get back to the original design as best you can. You must first identify the good plants and then pull away everything around each one. Gradually, the shape and structure of the garden will emerge.

Then plants will need to be moved. Some will have grown too pathetic and will have to be dug out and replaced. Perhaps some need more water, others less, and they’ll have to be regrouped.

Today’s metaphor is about what happens when you’ve written like a maniac and then sat back to discover that you’ve got a mess on your hands. You’ve got words that don’t hang together, that have buried its best points, and that have no sense of pattern or shape.

My friends, it happens to a lot of people. They might start with a plan. Or they start with an idea and no plan. Or they just start writing and hope for the best. But that plan isn’t solid, that idea is wobbly, and writing without plan or idea is largely a waste of time. But they’ve spent so much time already, surely it can be saved? (Cue sounds of whining…)

Enter the reverse outline.

What is a reverse outline, and why is it the machete of revision?

Simply put, reverse outlining looks for the main ideas in what you’ve already written. Most colleges teach this process in freshman composition classes, after which students promptly forget all about it. Just like they forgot about outlining before they started writing in the first place.

In the college version, you go paragraph by paragraph and write the main idea of each paragraph in one of the margins. Then you compare your main ideas to your thesis, toss them around like a chef’s salad, drop some on the floor, rearrange them, and generally add a layer of organization to whatever you’ve written.

That works. But I’m proposing the machete version. You go into the jungle you’ve created, you highlight anything you’ve said that presents an actual, solid idea. You slash and burn the rest.

They’re weeds. They might be pretty weeds, but as my father used to say, “Anything growing in the wrong place is a weed.”

Next, you really, truly, look at what is left. And you think about what you’ve found.

Reverse Outlining Is an Opportunity to Start Over with Better Stuff

The end game isn’t necessarily to find the supporting points for your original thesis and get them in better order. The end game is to find out what you’re really talking about and then determine whether you have the pieces you need to support it.

Gather all those genuine ideas and throw them into a new garden. Arrange them in different ways. Then write a new thesis, in a complete sentence, that supports your support.

You will still have holes that must be filled in. You will have plants that have died, plants that sprawl too much, plants that are marvelous but have nothing to do with the single theme you have derived. But now you can rebuild that garden with a single design, without the weeds that you’d be trying to pull out as you planted.

As long as your secret goal is to save as much of the original material as possible, however, then it’s nearly impossible to reverse outline and come up with something truly better. That’s why I advocate highlighting solid ideas and concrete support, and then moving them to a blank piece of paper where you can start over.

Better yet, write all the ideas on pieces of paper—sticky notes are great for this—and put them on the wall. Rearrange them as they now seem to go together. Write your single sentence that is your core thesis, based on what you actually have.

Even better still, put your sticky notes in random order on the wall, and then invite someone else to group them and to write the single sentence that is at their core. (This person should not have read the original paper.) He/she won’t be biased by the desire to save some of the material you’ve already written.

Once you have written your core idea as a new single sentence and created a new order, then you can return to your original paper to see if there is anything salvageable from what you wrote. It’s better, however, just to start over with what you’ve now created.

And the same is true of the overrun garden. Pull all the good plants out, and figure out how you want to arrange them, including moving some to a different bed altogether, or giving some to your neighbors. It may seem like more work at first, but in the long run it’s easier, and you’re much more likely to create something wonderful.

I hope you found this blog helpful. Please send me your questions for future issues, and tune in next Friday for Issue #28 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” 

Next week we’ll discuss something. Honestly, I don’t know what that is right now. Send me some questions so I can figure it out!

Want to learn how to make online courses that teach outstanding content well? Sign up for your free copy of “12 Steps to Killer Course Content” and weekly tips, click here.

Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).

Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course:

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *