Lessons From Log Lady: Reverse Outlines, Main Ideas, and Thinking Backwards

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Before the start of every semester, I brainstorm new ways to improve my understanding of the daily operations of my center. This semester, I am using myself as a sort of pilot study. At the end of every day this semester, I update a log of how many times I have utilized particular tutoring techniques. My list of techniques is divided into the four main steps of the writing process: planning, drafting, editing, and revising. Underneath each of these topics are particular approaches such as mind-mapping and reordering. While no list can possibly account for all instructional techniques nor all of the overlap and cross-pollination between different approaches, the one I have developed, I believe, provides a productive foothold. My hope is that by examining the approaches I rely on the most, I will learn to diagnose student needs more efficiently and train my team more effectively.

As I am about to cross the 200 appointment threshold for the fall semester, I feel like my sample size is suitably long for serious examination. Yesterday afternoon, a cursory glance of my data left me feeling quite disappointed. My log, which is maintained in a beautiful Darth Vader moleskin notebook, seemed to yield little of interest: many of my appointments focus on brainstorming techniques, with issues of revision consistently looming large. Upon further inspection, however, I noticed that I employed one technique in 47 of my 187 appointments: reverse outlining. In 25.1% of my appointments, I mobilized, to varying degrees and for varying amounts of time, reverse outlining. I have also modeled the concept to students during our studio-model labs and our Write On! Wednesday drop-in hour.

This high percentage asks me to reconsider when and how my team and I use reverse outlining. Speaking broadly, reverse outlining is the process of examining a completed draft of a piece of writing in order to identify the main points. Writers can open a blank document or grab a fresh piece of paper and make an outline of these points in order to check for weaknesses in structure, argumentation, and other areas. In a successful reverse outline, writers examine whether or not their thesis statement, topic sentences, and argument flow logically. Many writing centers have created handouts and guides for students. Click on the images below to see handouts and tips from Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL), the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the University of California at Berkeley. In all three examples, one can see that writing center practitioners associate reverse outlines with "longer papers" tackling "complex" subjects.

During my time as a private writing tutor in New York City, I definitely encouraged the graduate students, lawyers, and business professionals I worked with to use reverse outlining to keep their longer projects organized and focused. I encouraged them all to find a method of reverse outlining that suited their particular approaches to writing. Some of my clients highlighted related ideas the same color to make sure they were sequencing their work in a logical way. Some wrote their topic sentences on sticky notes and rearranged them in order to show the progression of their ideas or arguments. Others with elaborate technological tools dragged and dropped pages and paragraphs across multiple screens to find the best sequence.

This semester, I have been surprised by how effective reverse outlining can also be at very local levels. I have even used reverse outlining when helping students write paragraphs. While working with students in the developmental writing program, I encourage them to use bullet points and write down the main idea of each sentence and reflect on the relationship between successive sentences. By modeling reverse outlining to student writers as early as possible, writing center practitioners can introduce students to one of the most resourceful tools in the composition process. 

This early introduction is, in many ways, essential. After all, developing a successful reverse outline requires students to understand the features of the genre in which they are writing, take ownership of the relationship between successive ideas, identify - and hierarchize - their main points, reorder paragraphs/pages/sentences/clauses, and more

I am currently creating materials, including traditional handouts and multimedia resources, that simultaneously introduce and model reverse outlining for students across a range of disciplines and skill levels. 

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Like Log Lady from Twin Peaks, I carry a log around with me. Like her log, mine also has something to say. Unlike her log, however, mine offers insight into the approaches we mobilize when working with student writers at all levels.