In many traditional composition classes, you make an outline before you write anything. It is something like a plan for you to fill in.
There is nothing wrong with that approach, but the reverse outline is completely different, both in its purpose and in its form.
A diagnostic tool
The idea here is to begin with a rough draft which is approaching its final form and try to figure out how it is working: balance, sequence, and so forth. You will need a fairly complete rough draft to do this—a scribbled note or two won't help you. You will read quickly through your draft and attempt to figure out what each piece is doing; then, you will ask questions about whether the pieces are in the right places and whether they are the right size. (Of course there are two more questions: Are there any missing pieces? Did you put things in which do not belong?)
Here are the rules:
- You need to work from a draft which at least 75%–80% done. The more you have, the better. You cannot do this with a half-page note about what you might write when you get around to it.
- The first part of the process should go very quickly. (I got this idea from a textbook by Jack Rawlins. He thinks 90 seconds is about right; we will probably go more like five or ten minutes the first time around.)
- You are not fixing as you go or attempting to write about what should have been there. This is a scale model of what you actually made.
- The human mind can only remember four or five things. Even very long articles should have a maximum of four or five big parts, so if you have ten or fifteen, you are making a list, not writing an essay.
What you will need
- A rough draft of your essay, as complete as possible. (I know this is the third time I said this.) A paper copy will be much more helpful than a copy on your computer.
- Scrap paper and pencil or pen. Some people find a couple of different colors of ink are helpful.