Reverse Outlining

A Reverse Outline can help you see your draft from a new perspective by focusing only on the main points and moves of each paragraph. 

  1. Open the most recent draft of your writing.
  2. Open another blank Word document.
  3. Copy and paste the following into the blank document:
    • Your thesis, or the sentence(s) that sum up your argument.
    • The first and last sentences of each body paragraph.
    • The sentence in your conclusion that you believe really hammers your point home.
  4. You should now have a skeletal version of your paper—read through it and see if your logic seems to transition well.

First, take a look at your thesis and the relationship between your thesis and body paragraph sentences. Ask yourself:

  • Is your thesis making an argument about your topic, or is it merely an observation or fact about the topic?
  • Does your thesis statement correspond with your concluding statement(s), or are they making different arguments?
  • Do your body paragraph sentences refer back to, or act as smaller arguments that help to support your thesis statement?
  • If not, how can you tie your arguments back to your thesis?
  • Or, how might you alter your thesis to “fit” the arguments you are making in your body paragraphs and conclusion?
  • What evidence can you use to better support your thesis and/or your smaller body paragraph arguments?

Second, take a look at your body paragraph sentences and how they relate to one another. Ask yourself:

  • Do your body paragraph sentences connect to and flow with one another?
  • Is each body paragraph sentence introducing a new concept or idea?
  • Do the first and last sentence of your body paragraph accurately represent what you want to argue in that paragraph?
  • How do your paragraphs speak to each other?
  • Are they disconnected, or do they build toward the statement you’re making in your conclusion?
  • If not, how can you rearrange or further connect each body paragraph to one another through the first and last sentences that you have included here?
  • How can you re-work your body paragraph sentences to more accurately express the arguments you wish to make?

As you revise, consider your answers to the questions above. How can your answers help you when revising your draft? If the sentences that you have highlighted in your skeletal outline do not work toward your overall thesis, then revise the portions of the essay that do not seem to follow.


The following example is for a paper exploring the concept of how humans learn to trust technology; the research involves analyzing several television commercials for Apple computers and products.

Note: This example was modified from a Reverse Outlining handout at The Writing Center @ The University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Working Thesis

Humans learn to trust technology by appealing to our individuality.

Paragraph Number 1 (Introduction)

  • Paragraph says:  Thesis: Ever since Apple's 1984 Super Bowl commercial, customers have seen Apple as creating technology that appeals to our individuality.
  • Paragraph does: Introduction (describes commercial) and Thesis
  • Revisions needed: Think about thesis—I’ve shown that Apple promoted their tech with appeals to individuality, but haven’t shown that people see Apple this way. Either find evidence for that or change thesis to talk about Apple’s marketing only. Also, my evidence seems to be showing how Apple has made tech friendly, personal, and human-like. May need to make thesis more specific or change my two points in second paragraph a bit.

Paragraph Number 2

  • Paragraph says: Apple devices (1) appeal to our sense of individuality and (2) appeal to our need to connect to people and world
  • Paragraph does: Further explanation of thesis and main points of argument
  • Revision needed: Didn’t talk about second point in the essay! Need to add! Which will help because paper is currently too short

Paragraph Number 3

  • Paragraph says: Ipod introduced in 2001.
    • Marketing promoted ways consumers had control over their technology, choosing how they wanted to configure and use it.
    • A way to build consumer trust in technology—created a friendly relationship with technology
  • Paragraph does: Example/evidence to back up thesis

Paragraph Number 4

  • Paragraph says: Apple stores:
    • Another way to build our trust with tech
    • Friendly, knowledgeable sales people
    • Clean, well-lit stores
  • Paragraph does: Example/evidence
  • Revisions needed: Need to explain why this builds trust. [make connection to my point]

Paragraph Number 5

  • Paragraph says: "Hi, I'm a Mac, and I'm a PC" TV commercials (2007)
    • Using humor to win trust, to break down “tech is scary” barriers
  • Paragraph does: Example/evidence

Paragraph Number 6

  • Paragraph says: Recent commercials
    • Reinforce that very easy for consumer to maintain their individuality with their iphone and other tech—how? What is the connection to trust?
  • Paragraph does: Example/evidence
  • Revisions needed: Really vague—need to describe which commercials and make connection to how these build trust in tech

Paragraph Number 7

  • Paragraph says: Siri
    • Voice-activation and speech technology create an individual, intimate experience with our technology
    • Personification of technology helps us relate to it
  • Paragraph does: Example/evidence

Paragraph Number 8 (Conclusion)

  • Paragraph does: What is my conclusion? How can I wrap this up?
  • Revisions needed: My organization is chronological…is this the best organizational strategy? Would organizing by my two points be more effective?

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