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.

Fairy Tales Too Good To Miss

by Lisa Ripperton
February 7, 2019

In our family reading over the years, we noted that a handful of stories stood far above the rest in almost every collection of fairy tales we read aloud together. We often wished that we had all the best stories from different collections together in one volume. So, after my children were all grown, I decided it was finally time to begin the project that had been in the back of my mind for two decades: to create a series of anthologies of the very best fairy tales to be enjoyed at different ages.

In a process that grew far beyond our original plans and took years to complete, this series became our Fairy Tales Too Good To Miss collection. Although we initially envisioned creating a single volume of 36 stories for each age, we found that there was more than enough material to prepare a second volume for each age, too! So ultimately, we compiled 12 volumes of stories, with 2 volumes for children of each age between years 5 and 10. (That’s 432 stories in all!)

In this rest of this post, you can read all about our quest to find the very best stories – or Fairy Tales Too Good To Miss – and what we’ve learned about selecting fairy tales to read aloud with your children along the way. Even if you don’t ever read our collections, we trust that the sources and guiding principles we used will help you in your own search to discover exceptional fairy stories from around the world.

What criteria were used for selection?

Many years ago at my son’s Waldorf School, Joan Almon, coordinator of Alliance for Childhood and retired Waldorf kindergarten teacher, gave a presentation on choosing fairy tales for different ages. That night she not only shared a list of fairy tales suitable for different ages, but also offered some guiding principles that have informed my work in this area ever since. Those principles are as follows:

  1. Setting. The more familiar a setting, the younger the child the tale is suited for. Tales with unfamiliar settings, or tales that shift from one setting to another are better suited for older children.
  2. Mood. Tales for younger children should be light-hearted and cheerful. Tales in which characters suffer sorrow or grief are more appropriate for older children.
  3. Problem or obstacle. In a story for young children, the problem or obstacle should be simple and easily overcome. For older children, problems and obstacles can increase in number and complexity. The more ominous and dangerous the task, the older the child should be.
  4. Complexity. Simple stories that have few characters and unfold in a predictable manner are better suited for younger children, while stories with complicated plots, numerous characters, and unexpected happenings should be reserved for older children.
  5. Length. In general, stories for younger children should be shorter. However, longer length stories with a lot of repetition, such as the tale of Henny-Penny, are not problematic. While stories for older children may be short, the stories with more challenging obstacles typically take longer to reach a conclusion.

Another one of the criteria we used in selecting fairy tales for inclusion is that they should be wholesome stories, in which good is rewarded and evil punished. Several exceptions were made for well-known tales such as Puss in Boots and Big Claus and Little Claus. However, such stories were deliberately placed in collections for older children when discernment about good and evil is keener.

Where do the stories come from?

We found an invaluable resource in STORIES: A List of Stories to Tell and Read Aloud, a pamphlet compiled by storytellers at the New York Public Library, as well as in similar volumes from the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh and the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Collectively, these sources listed hundreds of the fairy tales, fables, and legends that were beloved by storytellers and audiences alike. The stories we ended up selecting came highly recommended by scores of seasoned storytellers, and in this project, we feel privileged to have stood upon the shoulders of giants.

Well over half of the fairy tales in this series were collected in Europe in the 19th century by folklorists such as the Brothers Grimm (German), Asbjornsen and Moe (Norse), and Joseph Jacobs (English, Celtic), with a smattering of stories coming from Japan and India. The earliest were those published by Charles Perrault (France) in 1697. A surprisingly large number of the stories are literary fairy tales, including stories from Hans Christian Andersen, Howard Pyle, Dinah Maria Mulock, John Ruskin, George MacDonald, Andrew Lang, Wilhelm Hauff, Frances Browne, and Rudyard Kipling.

How are the collections illustrated?

Each volume includes both color and black and white illustrations, and the illustrations in the Fairy Tales Too Good To Miss series are as diverse and captivating as the stories themselves. In preparing this series, we pored over illustrations from all around the world, with many illustrations coming from the U.K., some from Germany, and even one from South Africa, but with the bulk originating in the U.S.

Among the illustrators whose work is represented in the collections are Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, Jessie Willcox Smith, Walter Crane, Anne Anderson, Margaret Tarrant, Frederick Richardson, and L. Leslie Brooke.

How do I know which age each book is intended for? And what if my child is developmentally out-of-sync with his age?

The suggested ages are given in the description of each book but not in the titles or anywhere in the volumes themselves, so you can move through them at a pace that suits your child and their individual reading and listening abilities, and they will be none the wiser.

Is there any difference between the two volumes for an age?

No, there is not. One might assume that the best stories are all in the first volume, with the second containing just the “left overs,” but this isn’t the case at all! We purposely put some of our very favorite stories in each volume, and arranged the stories in a careful sequence so there is a good variety for those reading straight through.

When is the best time to read these stories?

With 36 stories in each volume, there is a story for each week of the school year, beginning in the U.S. in late August and continuing until early June. The stories that have a strong seasonal component are sequenced so they will be read in the proper season (at least in the northern hemisphere), but if you’d prefer to jump around, any story may be read at any time!

Where and in what format are these collections available?

All 12 volumes are available for purchase as ebooks at Yesterday's Classics. Print editions are not currently planned.

A final note

We hope you have as much enjoyment in reading these fairy tales as we had in putting them together!

​Purchase Ebooks at Yesterday's Classics

First Set

Second Set
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