Reverse Outlining

I use reverse outlines in most of my editorial letters to students. Here’s how to make and use them:

  1. Number the paragraphs of your essay.
  2. Write a one-sentence summary of each paragraph.
  3. Analyze the outline.

To analyze your outline, look for non-sequiturs, extraneous paragraphs, and gaps in logic. Ask yourself questions such as these:

  1. Does my story have a lesson? Have I changed, realized something, or grown as a person?
  2. Is there an internal as well as external challenge?
  3. Does my solution match the challenge?
  4. Does the bulk of my essay support my conclusion? For example, if I end by saying that I want to help victims of abusive housing practices, does my essay show how I or someone I care about was harmed by those practices?

These questions don’t apply to every essay; I’m just trying to give you an idea of the process.

Below is the first draft of a student I’ll call Lilah, followed by my actual feedback. I used a reverse outline to diagnose Lilah’s work.

Country Club (First Draft)

1. The promises we make to ourselves are the most important. The first time I remember making a promise to myself, I was sitting next to my mother in the office of social services. While squiggling around in the unwelcoming chair, I could hear the aggravation in the social worker’s voice and the embarrassment in my mother’s. “Mrs. Heston, everyone else can make copies of their ID and bring it with them and you are the only one who can’t. I won’t be able to help you today. I can’t help you unless you want to help yourself,” scolded the social worker.

2. I wanted to interrupt the social worker and explain my mother did want to help herself. We had woken up early and walked to the only store that made copies in our small upstate NY town; however their copier was out of service. What I remember most about that day is how little my mother’s truth mattered to the social worker. From that day forward I promised myself to listen to each person’s truth, because sometimes the truth is all a person may have.

3. Six years later I boarded a work van to a near-by country club. As workers filled the van the smell of cigarettes and coffee became heavier; I became angrier. I hated working in an environment where I was reminded of my place on the socio-economic ladder. By the end of my first week cleaning rooms, I realized being angry wouldn’t help my circumstances. I no longer wanted to spend another day angry; instead I made a promise to myself to learn something valuable every day. The promise challenged me to look beyond the act of cleaning rooms; it forced me to look for life lessons I would have otherwise missed. My time spent working at the country club allowed me to look into a life very different from my own. I began paying close attention to how the guests spoke. When telling stories the guests spoke clear and effortlessly; each word seemed to fit perfectly like a puzzle. Last summer I was asked by my manager to present at an annual technology conference in Orlando. In a room filled with industry peers, I reflected back to the well spoken guests at the country club. I imagined myself as one of the country club guests, confident and selective with each word.

4. For the past eight years I have worked at SysCorp Corporation, the world’s largest healthcare services provider. In my current role as a business analyst I work on cross functional teams to help integrate new acquisitions onto SysCorp’s processes and tools. Many of my coworkers dread being assigned the task of developing “current state” process maps. The process can be painstaking because it requires the analyst to gather and organize information from several sources. I, however, enjoy documenting and uncovering the truth as told by the employees who have firsthand experience. As much as I listen to the words spoken, I pay an equal amount of attention to their eyes and passion in their voice. These are the clues which often lead me to path of truth.

5. During these meetings I remember myself as an eight year old girl in social services with my mother; ashamed of my family’s situation and vulnerable because our truth was not relevant. “Hello Ms. Burge! My name is Lilah Heston and I want to hear all about you. The company has been around for fifteen years and I am 100% certain they could not have done it without you,” I say as I extend my arm to shake hands.

6. The promises we make to ourselves are the most important; they help to shape what will eventually become our character. As a potential law school student I look forward to making new promises to myself. The opportunity to participate in the HeLP Legal Services Clinic at Georgia State Law School will allow me to give back to communities similar to the one I grew up in. As a lawyer I will have the chance to help a mother and her eight year old daughter. I promise to greet them with a warm smile and willingness to listen to their truth.

My Actual Feedback

Dear Lilah,

You’ve made a fantastic start. You knit together powerful anecdotes with a strong theme—the promises we make to ourselves—and your personal statement demonstrates your maturity.

Right now, however, you’ve mashed two essays into one. To understand what I mean, let’s do a paragraph-by-paragraph reverse outline. I’ve numbered each paragraph, and I encourage you to keep a copy of your marked-up essay open while you read this.

Reverse Outline

  1. A social worker refuses to help your mother.
  2. You make the first promise to yourself: to listen to each person’s truth.
  3. You get angry while working at a country club, promise yourself to learn each day, listen to how country club guests speak, and put what you've learned to use at a technology conference.
  4. You explain your job at SysCorp.
  5. You link your job to the anecdote in paragraphs one and two; you listen to each person’s truth.
  6. You restate your theme (the promises we make to ourselves are the most important) and link the theme to your professional ambitions.

Analysis of Your Essay

Paragraphs one, two, four, five, and six develop a theme about listening to people’s truth. Paragraph three is a separate mini-essay about what you learned at the country club.

My advice is focus on one theme or the other. Choose whether you want to write about listening to other people’s truth or about what you learned in the country club.

I. The Essay about Listening to Other People’s Truth

I love your anecdote in the first paragraph. I like the promise you make to yourself. Right now, though, paragraphs five and six don’t quite demonstrate how you fulfill that promise. Listening to other people’s truth means feeling compassion for them and giving them the benefit of the doubt. Developing “current state process maps” seems to involve a very different kind of listening.

If you want to write about listening to other people’s truth, you should find a better way to demonstrate how you fulfill your promise to yourself. Write about a situation in which you give vulnerable people the benefit of the doubt.

II. The Essay about What You Learned in the Country Club

You’ve already laid out an arc for this essay:

  1. Working in the country club made you angry.
  2. You decided to turn it into a learning experience.
  3. You listened to how the guests spoke and demonstrated what you learned at the the tech conference in Orlando.

In order to turn this into a full-fledged essay, you should develop each movement. Let’s take it piece by piece.

  1. Working in a country club is a great setup, but your essay would be more compelling if you formulated the situation as a challenge: it was difficult not to be angry and jealous, or it was difficult to make the country club guests respect me.
  2. Can you be more specific about the moment you decided to learn something instead of getting angry? Where were you? What were you doing? What made you change your attitude on that particular day?
  3. Can you be more specific about how you learned from the country club guests? Do you remember any phrases in particular that sounded sophisticated? Did you practice what they said in the mirror? I’d also love to hear more about the tech conference in which you used what you learned. This sounds like a wonderful moment of triumph.

I think this second essay about the country club might incorporate the anecdote about the aggravated social worker. For example, if the challenge is that of making the country club guests respect or listen to you, you might backtrack to the moment when the social worker didn’t respect your mother. You might conclude that the way you and your mother spoke contained signals to people in different socio-economic groups, and you might resolve to learn from the way the country club guests spoke.

The Next Steps

  1. Do two more brainstorms, one about each essay.
  2. Try to write a two- or three-sentence outline for essays I and II.
  3. Choose one essay and rewrite. You could make either one work.

I’ll close with two examples of two- or three-sentence outlines.

Essay I:

  1. When a social worker didn’t listen to my mother, I promised myself to listen to each person’s truth.
  2. I fulfilled that promise when I…

Essay II:

  1. Working at a country club made me angry, because it highlighted what I didn't have.
  2. I turned it into a learning experience by becoming more articulate.
  3. I demonstrated what I learned when I…

Good luck with the rewrite, Lilah!



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