Study bites: Check your structure before you wreck your structure

20 Sep 2021

Reverse outlines for a clear essay structure

Have you ever been told that your essay lacks structure, logical flow or cohesion? Most likely.

This can be very daunting for undergraduate students who are usually grappling with the content and the ideas and don’t always have the experience to read their own work critically. But good structure is attainable through clear planning.

We tend to think that planning is unidirectional. That is, that it occurs from start to finish in a linear process. Yet good planning can and should happen at different stages of the assessment writing process.

While we might create an outline at the start to structure a written assessment task, we can also take a written assessment and turn it back into an outline. This is called reverse outlining.

But, why bother?

Reverse outlining will help reveal the bare bones structure of your assessment draft as well as any problems in logic and cohesion. It can also help to determine whether you have met the assessment task requirements.

Remember: while writers naturally focus on sentences, we must always remember that our readers are naturally inclined to focus on paragraphs!

How do I do a reverse outline?

The steps to creating a reverse outline are simple:

  1. Number each of your paragraphs
  2. Identify the main point (or topic) of each of your paragraphs (this is usually outlined in the topic sentence, or should be).
  3. Arrange your points into an outline (or dot-point overview) of your assignment
  4. Analyse this outline. Does it answer the assessment task question? Does it make sense to present your ideas in this order? What’s missing? What’s not important or relevant?
  5. Create a revised outline
  6. Reorganise your draft with this new order
  7. Revise your paragraphs as needed

You can then use the PEEL acronym to make sure every paragraph has a sentence outlining a clear point, sufficient explanation and evidence to back this point, and a concluding sentence with a clear link to your overall argument and/or your assessment question.

The reverse outline is handy for a basic essay to focus on topics sentences, but can also be used for a more complex task, such as a literature review. The reverse outline can be very useful in the revision stage. And as your Learning Skills Advisor, I really recommend that you do not skimp on revision, since good writing is really the product of a lot of editing.

Check out the excellent blog Exploration of Style for detailed explanations and more!

Have a go, it’s a really handy tool and great to get a fresh perspective on your own writing, which can be hard when you have had your head in it for too long!

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