The process of transitioning from research notes to a first draft can be daunting, and the creation of outlines and mind maps eases the way for many writers. But what if your favored method of working is a direct dive into writing pages and pages of exposition until you reach the conclusion? Can stream-of-consciousness drafts result in quality essays?
The truth is, readers can easily spot an essay that hasn’t been shaped. Some telltale signs are repetitiveness, disorganization, paragraphs that don’t align with topic sentences, and a conclusion that doesn’t match the thesis statement. To a professor, these are signs of a hastily crafted, night-before-it’s-due paper; to an editor, they’re signs that an author isn’t invested in the work being done. No matter what your writing timeline is, these are impressions to avoid, and there’s a relatively pain-free fix. It’s called “the reverse outline.”
Sometimes the mention of the word “outline” has writers rolling their eyes and envisioning roman numeral exercises from elementary school, but a reverse outline is a fast and simple method for revealing the bones of your work and is a critical part of the revising and editing process. Here’s one method for reverse outlining:
Read each paragraph, and write out the main point in the left margin.
In the right margin, write down how each paragraph supports and advances the thesis.
Review the right margin notes. Is there a logical build and direction that moves the reader from your thesis to the conclusion? If not, what needs to be shifted, added, or removed?
Review the left margin notes. Are any main points repeated? Are there paragraphs where it was difficult to identify a main point? Are several main points jumbled together in the same paragraph? Are there sentences that don’t support the paragraph’s main point? What shifts might be necessary to resolve any of these issues?
Making those shifts: move paragraphs, delete sentences, and clarify connections and focus.
Note if there are sufficient signposts and transitions for the reader to follow the re-ordered argument and evidence.
Carry on with your usual editing and proofreading from here!
With a small bit of fine-tuning through the use of these reverse outline suggestions, a stream-of-consciousness draft can evolve into a logically structured essay with great flow while fully supporting the thesis and effectively guiding the reader to a logical conclusion. Not bad for avoiding the use of roman numerals! Even your elementary school teacher would be proud.
Do you want to publish your art or writing? Do you enjoy reading the work of others and talking about writing? Do your friends always ask you to help proofread their papers? Getting involved in a campus publication is a great way to get some résumé-building experience with writing, editing, design, publishing, and even marketing and event planning.
Following is a list of campus publications at St. Edward’s, with links for more information. Note that each publication has different guidelines, policies, schedules, and needs, and most are staffed by students and faculty who juggle many responsibilities. If you want to get involved, be sure to read the information on the publication’s website, if it has one, and be respectful and professional when emailing publication staff. (Here are Five Tips for Better Email.)
Arete, published annually in print, is the university’s academic journal. Submission guidelines are on the web.
Cabra is a student-run fashion magazine on the web. For contact information, see the Masthead section of the website.
Hilltop Views is the campus newspaper, which publishes in print and online. To learn how to get involved, see the Contact Us and Submission links at the bottom of the website.
J-Source: A St. Edward’s Undergraduate Research Journal is the faculty-edited journal of SOURCE (Symposium on Undergraduate Research and Creative Expression), an annual event. For more information, contact Dr. Victoria Hill.
New Literati is an arts and literary journal published online and in print. See the journal’s website for contact and submission information.
Serious about developing your writing skills? In the Good Reads on Writing series, we’ll suggest some books and articles in which writers give insider tips, complain about their writing problems, and tell stories about how they got from idea or assignment to published work.
If you’re in a certain mood, you might find the title Good Prose (find it at the Austin Public Library)to be a reminder that most of the writing we do is not going to be great, and that even our best efforts might result in something that’s merely good enough. But it’s also a reminder that writing that good-enough stuff is hard work, real work. Authors Tracy Kidder, a writer, and Richard Todd, his editor for many years at the Atlantic, make no secrets of the many drafts tossed in the wastebasket during the process of crafting articles and books. Over the four decades that Todd and Kidder worked together, they’ve come up with lots of golden advice. Here are a few nuggets from the book:
There are two kinds of rewriting: tinkering with words and sentences, and actually writing the thing again.
Write a first draft as quickly as possible. Then you won’t feel so bad about yourself when you have to scrap the whole thing.
Be wary of using voices that try to nuzzle up too close to the reader.
Sometimes you must sacrifice beloved parts for the survival of the whole.
Don’t mess with chronology unless you have an extremely good reason to do so.
“Something is always wrong with a draft.”
“All prose responds to work.”
The book itself exemplifies clarity we should all strive for in writing. It’s a product of editorial synthesis, the result of collaboration between a writer and an editor who are equally relentless. Few writers have this relationship, but if you happen into one, by all means, don’t let it go.