A. L. Buehrer What I Write and Why

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Power of Reverse-Outlining for Revisions

This might be the most useful technique I’ve ever discovered when it comes to editing and revision. I did it for the first time while I was working on Dronefall Two, Lightwaste. I’m at the dreaded revision stage for my current WIP, Rainchill, Dronefall Three, but I’m not dreading it like I used to, because I just finished creating my reverse-outline.

So, let’s get straight to business.

What is a Reverse-Outline?

I can’t remember where I read it, but somewhere someone said you should keep a running outline of your chapters and scenes that you can refer to during your revision process. I decided what I wanted was a concise, uncluttered, list-like map of my whole novel in clear chronological order. It looks a lot like a plot, but actually a bit more detailed, in my case, and much easier to read. A reverse-outline is an inventory of what’s there, in your finished manuscript, before you begin your revisions.

How do I create a Reverse-Outline?

If you decide to implement this tool into your own revision routine, you’re going to want to customize it and tweak it so that you get the most out of it. I give my first draft a rest for…probably too long, and then return for an objective read-through. I divide my outline into chapters and my chapters into scenes.

I label my chapters with numbers and names. I know a lot of people don’t name their chapters, but if you don’t, I might recommend that you give them names or some quick descriptors in your reverse-outline. This will just make it a lot easier to navigate and see your overall plot as you revise.

Most of my chapters contain three scenes, but the actual number of scenes ranges from two to five. There are several ways you can choose to handle your scenes in a reverse-outline. You could just write a quick sentence describing what happens. Or you could write the character goal, the conflict, and the outcome. I have been using James Scott Bell’s HIP acronym. H=hook, the thing that pulls you into the scene. I=intensity, the action or conflict of the scene. P=prompt, the thing that makes you read on. I find this method helpful because it highlights how readable and interesting a scene is…or is not. This way, when I’m revising, it’s easy to see when a scene is boring.

So, when I write all this down, it sort of looks like this:


Sc. 1

H: a crazy thing happens I: it escalates to global hysteria P: someone get help!

I leave wide margins and make notes when I find a major plot-hole or scene I could improve. Once I’ve been through the whole novel, writing it out this way, I can get to work on revisions with my reverse-outline as a roadmap.

How do I use a Reverse-Outline?

A reverse-outline does some really helpful things for me. First off, it forces me to read my first draft quickly, and summarize my overall structure as well as my chapters and scene-work. I now have my story written out in its most important details in an easily accessible format. Not only have I probably made the major plot-holes and dropped threads clear to myself already, but I can keep this reference handy for all my smaller edits. Having the plot in front of me all the time will safeguard me against creating other plot-holes that might result from my stupid brain trying to mess with the chronology of my story in my memory. (This is a problem for me.) I want to be able to quickly check the order of events without searching my document.

There aren’t a lot of limits to how you can use the reverse-outline in your editing process. I’ve gone through and ranked my ten weakest scenes and gone back in to improve each one. I’ve marked which scenes were action and which were reaction, found the turning-points, and flagged the scenes that seemed too heavy-handed or forced. You can track the emotional range of a story, or the surfacing of sub-plots, or character POVs by color-coding. You name it. If it’s something you feel you need to edit for, you can use the reverse-outline to assist you.

Reverse-outlining might be particularly useful for visual people or those of us who stray quite a bit from our original plot and need to remind ourselves what actually went down in the manuscript. If you think this sounds like too much fuss, it actually isn’t. You’re going to want to read through your first draft anyway, and taking notes in this way really doesn’t take any extra time. If you’ve never done anything like this before, you might find that it actually helps take some of the pain out of revisions.  


  1. I wasn't sure if this technique would work for me or not (I've tried a lot of ideas that sounded good but just didn't help me), but I decided to give it a shot with the book I'm working on rewriting/editing. I was having trouble keeping track of how/whether the main conflict of the story was tracking through various scenes, so I made that my focus, and wow! This actually works!!! Such a useful top-level view of the story, without getting lost in details and too many words to read in one sitting. I'm definitely using this again. Thanks so much! :D

    1. Great to hear that! I know this has really done wonders for me. Glad it could help you, too. :)