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Add reverse outlining to your writing toolbox

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You probably know that outlining is an important part of the writing process. An outline helps you organize your writing and identify gaps in your analysis. The more complex the material you are writing about, the more important your organization is—and legal analysis is often complex. Most writers outline at the start of their writing process, and that is unquestionably a useful approach.

But did you know that outlining after you’ve written a draft is also a highly effective way to diagnose and fix organizational problems? And a reverse outline (also called a “post-draft” outline) forces you to engage in writing as a process, to tackle substantive revisions to your draft and not just stylistic ones.

Why reverse outline?

Reverse outlines serve at least three main purposes.

First, as Professors Alexa Chew and Katie Pryal write in The Complete Legal Writer, reverse outlines can “help you brainstorm more material . . . because they can reveal to you where your document has missing parts and sections.” In other words, if you take the time to dig into the purpose of each paragraph and its relationship to the document as a whole—which we will teach you to do below—you’ll be better able to see the gaps in your reasoning and/or your research.

Second, reverse outlines enable you to focus on the organization of your document after you already have significant material on the page to organize, instead of organizing only from the ideas in your head. This gives you a methodical way to test your organization at both a big-picture level and a paragraph-by-paragraph level.

Third, reverse outlines can be helpful from a process standpoint. For example, if you have trouble starting a writing project, knowing you will have a reverseoutline stage built into your process might free you to just start writing without worrying about the organization—especially if you struggle to start because you can’t see how the pieces fit together. In other words, while a reverse outline is a helpful complement to a pre-draft outline, some people might even find that a reverse outline can take the place of the usual pre-draft outline. That is particularly true of those who use the pre-draft outline as a procrastination tool to avoid the actual writing process; if you find yourself spending hours and hours perfecting your pre-draft outline, you might instead force yourself to jump into writing a draft, and use a reverse outline to clean up the organization on the back end.

How to reverse outline

Here’s the key thing to remember when creating a reverse outline: You must be faithful to what you actually wrote, not what you intended to write. For example, when you make a notation in your outline about the key point of a particular paragraph, you must record what a reader would actually draw from the paragraph as its key point, and not what you intended for the key point to be. The whole idea is to make sure that the organization works for your audience, and your audience sees only what’s on the page, not what’s in your head.

A reverse outline can help you articulate what you actually wrote instead of what you intended to write by providing a way of engaging with your document that differs from drafting it. In this way, it creates distance between you and your document, helping you avoid the glazed eyes and missed errors that come from re-reading the same document multiple times. Even then, you can create even more distance between you and your draft by putting it down before you reverse outline and doing something else for a while; take an hour away from it if you can, or a day or more if you have the time.

Now that you are ready to begin, print out your draft. Think of your reverse outline process as having two levels: (1) a small-scale review that looks at each paragraph individually, and (2) a large-scale review that looks at the relationship of each paragraph to the others.

Then ask yourself two questions:

  1. Is the point of each paragraph clearly conveyed in your topic sentence?
  2. Does every sentence in that paragraph advance or relate to that key point?

If the answer to either or both of those questions is “no,” you have identified the first things you need to fix. Rework each paragraph until they are all internally-cohesive and start with an informative topic sentence.

(2) Large-scale review. If you’ve completed step one, you should now be looking at a series of paragraphs, each of which has a single purpose (which you can discern from its topic sentence), and each of which has a notation on the side indicating the paragraph’s key point and its part in the legal analysis. Now what?

This is when you review either the summaries you’ve written of each paragraph or their topic sentences—by now, they should contain the same information—and the series of Cs, Rs, As, and Es in the margins. Ask yourself: do these ideas make sense in this order?

Of course, this is a loaded question. We’re legal writing professors, so this is where you’re probably expecting us to talk about CRAC or IRAC or TREAT or whichever acronym you prefer. And yes, the reverse outline can help diagnose a CRAC gone wrong (did you apply the law on a particular point before you explained it? Or did you mix your explanation of a rule with its application?).

But an imperfectly executed CRAC is only a problem if you were structuring around that framework to begin with. By the time attorneys go into the world, they have often started intentionally breaking the “rules” they learned as 1Ls. And sometimes, that’s okay—but only if it’s an intentional decision made for a good reason. Here, too, a reverse outline can help, because the documents that don’t have a ready-made structure are the ones where the organization is most likely to go off the rails. A reverse outline can help the author see that and impose a logical structure.

For example, you might find that there is a logical gap between the main points in two consecutive paragraphs and determine that you as a writer need to do some work to connect those two ideas. Or you may discover unnecessary repetition across paragraphs, or instances in which ideas are not presented in the most logical order (for instance, where ideas don’t proceed from general to specific). These are exactly the kinds of deficiencies that reverse outlines can reveal, whereas simply reading text on a screen may make it tempting to tune out of the big picture and focus only on sentence style.

That’s an important note: as you reverse outline, you generally should not be tinkering with sentence style; instead, save that for after you are happy with the organization. Once you’ve used your reverse outline to identify and address any larger-scale trouble spots in your document, that’s when you can return to the less daunting and more instant-gratification edits, like revising your prose to make it more punchy and powerful—which, believe it or not, is something that even writing professors do to avoid looking at the big picture. Good thing we reverse outlined this post.

Rachel Gurvich and Beth Wilensky Rachel Gurvich is a clinical assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of law, where she has taught Research, Reasoning, Writing, and Advocacy since 2015. Before that, she was a patent and appellate litigator at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP in Boston. Connect with Rachel on Twitter. Beth Hirschfelder Wilensky is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan Law School, where she has taught legal analysis, research, writing, and communication since 2003. Prior to that, she practiced law at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington, D.C. Connect with Beth on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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