Writing with Russ: The Reverse Outline

Posted on August 4, 2014

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Russell Bither-Terry uses his experience from working at the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center to bring you tips for clear, concise writing. Whether you are an MPA student or a city manager, Russell’s tips can help you in your everyday writing. For background on Russell’s experience, check out Writing with Russ: Takeaways from the Writing Center.


My graduate school experience at UNC-Chapel Hill was littered with trips to the Writing Center.  A cure for my love of the passive voice first led me to the writing center. I quickly learned that the writing center was not a punishment but an incredible opportunity to learn from the experts. Writing tips, such as reading your work aloud or writing a first draft without constraints, have guided me throughout my professional career. 

Kent Wyatt , Tigard (OR) Senior Management Analyst and ELGL Co-Founder

 Outlining in Grownup Land


by: Russell Bither-Terry, Connect: LinkedIn and Twitter

August 3, 2014

My post introducing this series was pretty abstract. I wanted to outline a way of thinking about writing in Grownup Land that allows us to adapt tools designed for college students so we can use them in other contexts. How we think about things matters because it changes what we do with those things. Now that I’ve laid that groundwork, let’s do something more concrete.

rawLet’s look at a tool for the middle of the writing process. You have something written, but want to make substantial changes to it. You’re not at the point of fine tuning sentences and finding every last typo. Let’s say you’re just not sure about how you’ve organized the whole thing. Most of the stuff you need is there, but it seems like some of the paragraphs should be moved or some of the material belongs in different paragraphs.

If it’s a short piece it’s possible to think about the entire piece at once (or look at it on a single piece of paper or screen) and consider how to change the organization. For me, once something goes beyond a couple pages thinking on this level becomes increasingly difficult.

Enter the reverse outline. Students I worked with had almost never heard of this strategy. I think there’s a lot of baggage with outlines. They work well for some people, but others hate them because of traumatic experiences in middle school. How, they ask, am I supposed to know what I’m going to say until I say it? For such writers (and I’m often one) a useful process can be:

1. Make a mess

2. Clean it up

a. The big stuff

b. The little stuff

3. Repeat (optional)

The reverse outline helps with 2(a). Here’s an explanation in an 2-minute video:



I often describe this process as being like “zooming out in” Google Maps. You lose many of the details, but you’re able to see how the major parts fit together. Often this means thinking at the paragraph level, with each paragraph expressing one main idea.

I hope it’s clear why this tool is helpful far beyond college writing. I suspect this technique is especially helpful for reports or grant applications with multiple authors. Okay, so we’ve written all this stuff and it’s pretty good, but how do we fit it together in a way that will make sense for our intended readers and keeps us from unnecessarily repeating ourselves?

Does it seem like that might be useful? (It’s okay to say “no.” Not every tool is right for every writer). If you try it let me know how it worked for you.

Supplemental Reading


“Do you know what a reverse outline is?”

Outlining in Reverse – NYTimes.com


Reverse Outlining by Amber Whitlock on Prezi

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