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Completing a major textbook revision: The after-the-fact outline

The after-the-fact outline provides a valuable strategy to help complete a major book or article revision. Sometimes referred to as a reverse outline, I learned of this strategy from Tara Gray, author of the book Publish and Flourish. I have tried most of the advice in her book, and now that I have tried this piece of advice, I had to ask myself: “Why did I wait so long?”

The first thing to point out is that this strategy is not a writing strategy, but a revising strategy. This strategy works best when you have a draft of your article (or a portion of your article) and are ready to rewrite it. It is best if your draft is rough, as you need to feel comfortable with the idea of deleting and/or rearranging large portions of it.

Creating an After-the-Fact Outline

Step One: Organize paragraphs around key sentences. Readers expect nonfiction to have one point per paragraph. The point of the paragraph should be contained in a key sentence, supported by the rest of the paragraph. It must be broad enough to “cover” everything in the paragraph but not so broad that it raises issues that are not addressed in the paragraph. To test this idea, ask yourself the (key) question: “Is the rest of the paragraph about the idea in the key sentence?” If there are sentences in the paragraph that do not support the key sentence, move them or delete them. (The exceptions are transitions, which can remain.)

Step Two: Use key sentences as an after-the-fact outline. Extract each of the key sentences from your document and create an after-the-fact outline. This new document will contain only the key sentences.

Step Three: Use the after-the-fact outline to restructure your paper. Read the list and question yourself about the purpose and organization of the writing:

  • How could the key sentences better communicate the purpose (thesis) of the paper to the intended audience?
  • How could the key sentences be better organized? More logical? More coherent?

Once you have viewed your key sentences as an after-the-fact outline a few times you will discover how valuable it is to see your prose through this new lens. You will also discover there is no point in waiting to view your paper this way until you have a full draft of a writing project. Instead, you will find it useful to begin each writing session by viewing only the headings and key sentences of the section you worked on the previous day.