Reverse Outlining


Whether you are reading a published text or peer reviewing a paper, reverse outlining can help you process information by distilling the main ideas of a text into short, clear statements. Put simply, when reverse outline the reader tries to summarize each paragraph of a text in two sentences. This process will not only help you analyze the material you are reading, it will also allow you to organize your response. You may use reverse outlining to revise your own work, revise the work of others, or to annotate a text.

Reverse outlining follows a two-step, repeatable process:

  1. In the left-hand margin, write down the topic of each paragraph. Try to use as few words as possible.

When reading, these notes should work as quick references for future study or in-class discussion.

When revising your own work or the work of your peers, these notes should tell you if each paragraph is focused and clear.

  1. In the right-hand margin, write down how the paragraph topic advances the overall argument of the text. Again, be brief.

When reading, these notes allow you to follow the logic of the essay, making it easier for you to analyze or discuss later.

When revising work, these notes should tell you if each paragraph fits in the overall organization of the paper. You may also notice that paragraphs should be shifted after completing this step.

Remember to be brief. You should try to complete each step in 5-10 words. When reading a published text, you should be able to summarize the topic and the manner of support quickly; if you can’t, you should consult a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or other resources to help you understand the content. When reading your own work or the work of a peer, you should consider revising any section that does not have a clear point that is easy to rearticulate.

When reading a potential source, you should consider which points you agree or disagree with and make notes that help you formulate your opinion. However, when reading work with the goal of revision, the objective is to communicate an understanding of the writer’s main ideas, not to critique or correct these points. When reading your own work or the work of a peer, if the paragraph does contain an easily identifiable point, but it does not relate to the thesis or topic of the paper, it may be appropriate to remove this section entirely.

This exercise can be expanded by rewriting/typing your outline with comments or further suggestions, but writing in the margin might be sufficient.