Reverse Outlining

So this month, I decided to work on an article I have had zero success in getting published. It is a chapter from my PhD and I had tried to get it published prior to submitting my thesis with no luck. Three years later, I am still sitting with this article unpublished,  racking my brain as to what to do with it. The peer reviews I received all agreed that the ‘data’ (for lack of a better term) is interesting and should be published, but also stated that in its current form needs to be significantly reworked. Up until this year, and my quest to get better at writing, I had felt encouraged to keep working at it, but also just wanted this thing out of my life. I had little insight into how or what to do with it and had basically decided to procrastinate rather than take a more proactive stance.

Initially, I had tried Helen Sword’s advice to write a letter to the reader of my article on what they were looking for and then write a response from the reader. This simple tactic helped me to identify that the article was trying to do to much. I had 3 interweaving arguments, but they didn’t seem to make an overall point… The only issue was, having identified a problem I wasn’t sure which strand of argument to focus on. I ended up spending hours looking for the ‘perfect’ journal I could cater the article to, pretending that this was a useful strategy. You guessed it! – I never found that perfect journal!


dear reader storace.jpg
Letter to Reader


I am also part of the #wiasn and at the start of last month, took to their Facebook page to voice my woes and ask for advice. The support was overwhelming, and a few members encouraged me to try reverse outlining. I had never heard of this method before and in case any readers are unaware, here are the nuts and bolts:

1. Start with a complete draft to have a fuller picture of the plan you carried out. You can use a partial draft to review the organization of the paragraphs you have written so far.

2. Construct the outline by listing the main idea of each paragraph in your draft in a blank document. If a paragraph’s topic sentence provides a succinct version of the paragraph’s argument, you can paste that sentence into the outline as a summary for that paragraph. Otherwise, write a one-sentence summary to express the main point of the paragraph.

3. Number your list for ease of reference

I found this information on and I do encourage anyone who doesn’t know about reverse outlining to have a read at their website!

The concept is simple and yet, within a few minutes of starting to draft the reverse outline and I immediately could see issues in my article. The opening paragraphs were covering too many topics and issues, with little explanation while others described events without relating it back to an overall argument. The article as it stands lacks drive and focus and yet, without this strategy I couldn’t spot these basic issues. I had used a lot of secondary biographical literature and was pointing out specific errors but wasn’t using any secondary literature to establish a premise or strengthen my overall argument. My voice was confused, making me sound like an immature teenager trying to sound intelligent, yet lacking awareness of the main issues. How could I have missed all of this!

I have now carefully unpicked the article, drafting points to work on, literature to read and finding a clear argument to focus on throughout. These are all the things I tell my undergraduate students and yet failed to do myself! My new aim is to take this week to work on each new section and create a quality article that I am proud to submit. I may not be able to submit it by the end of February, but I am hoping to produce a new draft and put it through the reverse outline process again before giving to colleagues for personal peer review.

While this has been an enlightening experience and I thank my fellow #wiasn members for alerting me to reverse outlining I am upset with the quality of my past work. That being said, this is why I am aiming to improve!


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