Reading to Write: Part II

Photo from the Vanderbilt Writing Studio. The original caption reads: "Reverse Outlining can be a sticky (note) situation"

Photo from the Vanderbilt Writing Studio. The original caption reads: “Reverse Outlining can be a sticky (note) situation”

A follow-up post on techniques for teaching writing by first teaching critical reading. In particular, I talk about reverse outlining: how to do it, why you might assign it, and some thought on its relationship to developing critical reading skills.

Reverse Outlines & Revisions

Photo from the Vanderbilt Writing Studio. The original caption reads: "Reverse Outlining can be a sticky (note) situation"

Photo from the Vanderbilt Writing Studio. The original caption reads: “Reverse Outlining can be a sticky (note) situation”

In a previous post, I described reverse outlining as “a wonderful way to see the forest and ignore the trees” in your own writing and argumentation. Reverse outlining is a fantastic editing technique; it’s one I recommend you use in your own writing, and incorporate into your students’ writing assignments. 

Reverse outlining is a deceptively simple technique. The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL at Purdue) suggests these instructions for reverse outlining: “1. In the left-hand margin, write down the topic of each paragraph. Try to use as few words as possible”, and, “2. In the right-hand margin, write down how the paragraph topic advances the overall argument of the text. Again, be brief.” Simple, yes?

The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, gives more detailed instructions for writing a reverse outline:

1. Start with a complete draft to have a fuller picture of the plan you carried out. You can use a partial draft to review the organization of the paragraphs you have written so far.2. Construct the outline by listing the main idea of each paragraph in your draft in a blank document. If a paragraph’s topic sentence provides a succinct version of the paragraph’s argument, you can paste that sentence into the outline as a summary for that paragraph. Otherwise, write a one-sentence summary to express the main point of the paragraph.3. Number your list for ease of reference.

The point of both sets of instructions is to create an outline that is a reflection not of what you hoped to communicate or thought you had communicated, but is instead a record of what actually ended up on the page. We write not only to communicate but to learn; sometimes this learning takes us, and our arguments, in unexpected directions.

Once you have a reverse outline completed, things get a bit more complex.  This is when you “use your reverse outline to answer questions”, as the University of Wisconsin Writing Center phrases it. This stage is crucial; in fact, I would recommend an even more detailed reverse outline than the one proposed by Wisconsin in order that the questions you ask of it might provide even better, more detailed answers.

When I assign a reverse outline to students, I tend to give instructions similar to these:

1. Open a draft of your paper in a word processor. Underline the thesis statement. In the introduction, highlight where you give your reader a “roadmap” for the proofs/points you will discuss in the essay (this may be a part of your thesis statement).

2. If you cannot find your roadmap, thesis statement, or topic sentences, note where you think they should be, or why you think they might be absent.

3. Highlight the topic sentences of each body paragraph. Using the “review” function on your word processor, write down 3-4 keywords describing the topic of each paragraph In the left margin.

4. With your notations in mind, respond to the following questions. You may answer these questions in a separate document, or you may use footnotes in the same document, or you may continue to use the “review” function on your word processor.

Questions: How does the thesis statement answer the questions: What, How, and Why? For each paragraph, explain how the topic sentence reflects (or does not reflect) the keywords you’ve recorded in the paragraph’s margins. For each topic sentence, explain why you think the topic sentence is effective or ineffective. Do the topics of each paragraph correspond to the “roadmap” your thesis/introduction laid out for the essay?

I usually mark assignments like these on a pass/fail basis, and often for a bonus mark that I later attach to the final essay. Making these assignments voluntary and their marking rather liberal means that students are more likely to give honest answers to the questions they ask of their reverse outlines–yes, they will even risk criticizing their work, which is exactly what you are hoping to see. As a result, while completing the assignment does not guarantee that students will undertake revisions, it does push them to begin the process of learning to critically read their own work . And, when the time comes to mark their reverse outlines, you get the pleasure of entering into a conversation students have already initiated, with themselves. It is magic.

Reverse Outlines & Critical Reading

So reverse outlines are not only effective tools in the revision process, they are also invaluable active learning strategies. Which raises the question: why not introduce them to students earlier in the writing process?

In English classes, critical reading appears consistently on course syllabi as one of, if not the primary learning goals teachers would like to see students achieve. Precisely how teachers would like to see their students develop such a skill, however, can remain unclear, perhaps because we English instructors (and other well-read teachers and academics) do not really understand how we became critical readers in the first place. Perhaps we’re not even clear in our own minds precisely what critical reading is.

Here’s my crack at a definition: To read critically is first to read for comprehension on the author’s own terms, and, second, to consider the text, and its component parts, in light of one’s previous knowledge, other texts & authorities on the subject, one’s personal response to the text, and the context and the historical moment out of which you, as the reader, approach the text. 

To me, then, critical reading is a strange balance between respectful attention–something akin to listening, perhaps to listening graciously–and active interrogation, which is easy to forget when teachers approach a text with analytic enthusiasm, after having read that text before, and many times over. In my eagerness to teach critical reading, I have often caught myself skipping right over attentive listening to get right to the interrogation, which is terrible modeling. The result? Readings conducted by students that are illogical and unbalanced. And, perhaps worse, a lesson learnt by students that what I want from them is not the process of reading, but a pantomime of critique.

These results are not surprising. Critical reading is an active process, perhaps even a set of active reading practices; when I do not engage students in critical reading actively and reflexively, it stands to reason that the readings that result are rather flat, superficial, or stilted mimicry.

One solution to the problem of flat reading is to assign reverse outlines of required readings early in a semester, before students have even begun to think about their term papers. Assigning reverse outlines early-early in the writing process–in the reading stage of the writing process–can help students develop the critical reading skills necessary for thoughtful writing. Tailor each reverse outline to specific elements you would like your students to focus on. When I assign a reverse outline with the instructions I recorded above, I have the following learning outcomes in mind: that students will appreciate the value of clear, accurate topics sentences and that students will learn to evaluate the logical coherence of their arguments. Do not worry if the assigned reading does not follow standard academic writing conventions, or if it written poorly or perhaps un-clearly. Seeing how weak organization affects communication will greatly benefit your students.

This post could easily stray at this point from the topic of reverse outlines (which end up looking much like a regular outline would–the only difference between the two being temporal in nature) and into that of metacommentary (the end result of which looks less like an outline and more like a dedicated copy-editors mark-up of a text). I’ll stop myself before I stray too far, and will hopefully return to metacommentary in a later post. In any case, reverse outlines and metacommentaries are excellent editing techniques. More to the point in this post, they are under-utilized teaching tools. Critical reading is an active, engaged, and reflective process; so too must the teaching of it be.


2 thoughts on “Reading to Write: Part II

  1. First, let me say that these are great tips that I will take to heart and to the page as I try to become a better note-taker / writer. But also I’m looking forward to adapting / outright stealing some of these methods for use in my class this fall.

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