Writing a Retrospective Outline

by Rebecca Ripperton
​February 11, 2019

What is a retrospective outline?

Our third recommendation for helping students incorporate more structure into their writing is to have them create a rather unconventional form of outline. Instead of composing an outline before writing their essay, we suggest that they try creating one after a full draft has been completed instead. The main reason for this is because it is often far more fruitful to think about structure once most of your ideas have already been set down on the page, instead of in advance.

This can also be an especially helpful exercise for anyone struggling with sequencing of their paragraphs or ideas. While an essay is absolutely dependent on logic and the ideas presented must logically follow one another, part of the reason we write is to order our thoughts for ourselves. Often when we write a first draft, most of the material set down on the page is related to our main idea or thesis in some way, but the thoughts aren’t always perfectly ordered. Hence, outlining retrospectively.

When to use the retrospective outline

The first time I ever tried this exercise was when I was working on my senior thesis for my undergraduate degree. I found myself struggling to rearrange paragraphs within a 3-page subsection of a 30-page word document so out of frustration I decided to print the 3 pages at issue and cut out each of the paragraphs. I then began to arrange and rearrange the paragraphs, shuffling them about until the order was perfect. After that, it took virtually no time at all to go back into the word document and copy and paste appropriately, and voila – problem solved.

I’ve also used the retrospective outline with high school students and I find it works well for this age group because when a student is asked to write an outline before all of their ideas are fleshed out, the entire writing process can sometimes come to a screeching halt and they may lose whatever momentum they had previously gathered. A student may also wonder how they can possibly write an entire essay if they couldn’t even write a coherent outline, and become paralyzed.

In such a scenario, I would ask the student to ditch the outline for the time being and first write their essay, as some students have an easier time sorting out their ideas in actual prose than in skeletal form. Then later we would go back to the outline and map out their argument in outline form to ensure that their argument is sound and that they are actually saying what they had wanted to in their writing.

How do I incorporate this sort of project into my lessons?

To begin this exercise, a student should write on a blank sheet of paper what the function is for each paragraph of their draft and what that paragraph contributes to the overall argument. They can ask: if this paragraph were missing, what would be lost from the argument? Why might its omission compromise the validity of my conclusion? What is the main point I’m trying to make here? Then, if a reordering of ideas is necessary – they can cut apart the summaries of each paragraph and see what can and should reasonably be rearranged. Likely, not every single paragraph will need to be repositioned, so target more problematic areas. If you have an especially thorny section, you could even do this with sentences in a paragraph.

The retrospective outline then helps to illuminate where the gaps and redundancies in an argument may be. When the “meat” of each paragraph has been written out, the argument should read like a proposition and each item should follow stepwise from the one before. (One way to test this is to show the retrospective outline to a friend or teacher and have them work through it to ensure that the reasoning is both sound and complete.) It’s easy to think that you’ve stated something explicitly when you haven’t, and it’s also easy to become attached to sentences that are more or less irrelevant to your final argument. These sorts of errors can become much more readily apparent with an ex post facto outline!

Share your experience

Have you ever struggled with outlining? We'd love to hear about your solutions in a comment below!

Read more

If you'd like to learn more, read our earlier posts about writing: Writing as a Complement to Reading: Why Write?, The Importance of Freeform Writing, and Writing Beyond the Essay.

Rebecca Ripperton
 

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