How to Create a Reverse Outline

Reverse Outline: A useful tool

You may find it helpful to create a reverse outline, just as Benjamin Franklin did.

As you work with a text —essay, story, speech, article, or fable, it can be helpful to create a reverse outline. This can help you see the structure of the piece and the flow of ideas, as well as how an author supports an argument or sets a scene.

If you are working with Model-Based Writing, you would create a reverse outline during the Consider stage of the process. Creating the outline will prepare you for the Transform and Create stages of the cycle.

How to make and use a reverse outline

  1. List short hints (5-10 words) about each paragraph. You can do this in the margins of the text or on a separate piece of paper.
  2. If working with something you’ve written, use the outline to evaluate the flow of ideas in the article, essay, story, or other text. Adjust organization as needed.
  3. If creating an outline as part of a model-based writing lesson, use the hints in the outline to reconstruct, transform, or create a derivative work from the essay or article.
  4. If evaluating a student’s or other writer’s work, use the outline to examine the organization of the text and the flow of ideas.
  5. If working on an argumentative response to an essay or editorial, a reverse outline of the original article will help you craft a point-by-point rebuttal.
  6. When studying classic literature, creating a reverse outline as you read can help you understand complex works such as epic poems.
  7.  If preparing for a classroom discussion or exam, a reverse outline can help you quickly find or review specific points.

Benjamin Franklin used reverse outlines

Benjamin Franklin used a form of reverse outlining while teaching himself to write. He used essay models from The Spectator, a well-written magazine, and created his reverse outline by making a list of “short hints of the sentiment in each sentence.” He would later come back and rewrite the piece from the information in his hints. You can read more about his method in Copywork: How Benjamin Franklin Taught Himself to Write Well.

If you are starting from scratch and want to create an outline for an essay or article you are planning, “How to Create an Outline” will help you begin.


Image attribution: Desk and quill pens, Carpenter’s Hall  [site of the First Continental Congress in 1774]; Photo taken by Flickr.com user Jim Bullard, March 7, 2013. Creative Commons License.

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