One of the most difficult parts of revision is figuring out where to start.
You have this whole story (and for me they are usually 100k-word monster documents because I write LONG) that you may have spent weeks, months, years, writing. You probably also have pages of notes from CPs, betas, your mom, your sister, your BFF, your dog, etc. And now you have to figure out how to use all these things. How to make your story “better.” Whatever that means.
I am, generally speaking, a big planner. I like to make to-do lists, and then break down those lists into smaller to-do lists. I love spreadsheets and post-it notes and notecards and anything that helps me get things in order.
That need to plan trickles over into my revision process as well. Before I can even start thinking about making changes to a story, I need to figure out what’s not working in it, and I have a few tools that I use to do that. In this post, I will be discussing one of those tools, which I use at the start of a big revision.
The Reverse Outline
If you’ve never heard the term “reverse outline” before, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Rather than outlining the paper, the story, the proposal, etc. before you write it, as you would with a traditional outline, with a reverse outline, you outline the project after you complete a draft.
I know that might sound completely backwards and counterintuitive, but for most writing projects—and, in my opinion, fiction ESPECIALLY—being able to separate the words from the structure is so important. It’s a forest-from-the-trees problem, really. When you’re reading along paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, your attention is going to be drawn to the immediate issues: the words that repeat or aren’t working, the inconsistencies in character responses between paragraphs, the things that are right there under your nose on the page. But while you’re focused on the words in front of you, it can be easy to lose sight of the BIG PICTURE stuff: pacing, character arcs, world-building, etc. Reverse outlining helps you to push aside those words, those immediate things, for a moment to look at the big picture.
I do my reverse outlines in an Excel spreadsheet. What I like about the spreadsheet is that it allows for endless column creation and plenty of customization. You can add as many or as few columns as you like, depending on what you know you want to track.
Since pacing tends to be one of my biggest struggles as a writer, I usually create columns that help me outline the central narrative arc and smaller subplots to make sure they are unfolding properly throughout the story. Here are some examples of categories I’ve used in my reverse outlines in the past:
The great thing about this tool, though, is that you can switch it around to focus on whatever you feel you need. If you’re struggling with multiple points of view, you can use it to track what happens in each point of view to make sure the right points of view follow the right scenes. If you have trouble with character development or emotional arcs, you could focus solely on those in the columns. And all this ability to customize what you track makes the reverse outline useful not only for your first big revision after you finish writing a draft, but for any other major revisions you do (it can even be used as a way to check that everything is where it needs to be as you finish revising and get ready to send your document off to readers, your agent, etc.).
(If you’re new to writing and haven’t figured out what your strengths and weaknesses are yet, that’s okay! This tool can help you start to recognize these things as well. Just reverse outlining the central plot of the story and the development of your main characters will help you start to notice holes, repetitions, etc. This will help you start to see—especially as you write multiple books—what your particular quirks are.)
Once you’ve chosen your columns, then it is just a matter of going through your book chapter by chapter, or scene by scene, and filling in the columns.
I try to sum up the plot of each chapter/scene in one or two sentences—if I can’t, this is one major indicator to me that maybe there’s too much happening in the chapter.
I use the other columns to track various subplots or other pieces of the narrative. Usually I’ll use short-hand or quick bulleted items to list what details occur in that chapter that develop world building or the character’s arc or how relationships are developing.
Here’s an example of what a row might look like (please don’t judge my made-up examples—LOL).
The notes column is there to help you track things you notice as you write up the reverse outline, or ideas for changes you might want to make.
If you fill out the columns for the entire document, you should have a very thorough outline of exactly how your book looks in this draft. I recommend being really literal about what you put in the columns. Only write what you see there on the page, not what your intentions *might* have been.
For instance, in the above example, if I had meant for the first scene between Anna and Bard to show that Bard has a temper, but nothing ended up happening in the scene that illustrated that fact, then I cannot put that in the column for character development. I could, however, make a note that I want that scene to show these things when I revise.
The best reverse outlines are those that give a clear, accurate depiction of what’s on the page, as this will allow you to truly see what needs the most work (and also what is working well!).
Once you’ve completed your reverse outline, you can go back through it and see what you notice.
Here are some questions I always ask myself as I review my reverse outline:
- What chapters seem to have too little or too much plot?
- Are there any chapters that seem to repeat the same purpose of other chapters? (Having columns that track character development or important subplots can really help you notice this.)
- Are there any chapters that don’t seem to connect to the central plot line? Are there any chapters that only connect to the central plot line and don’t develop any other aspects of the story?
- Is there anything missing that I’d intended to include in the story?
- Are there chapters that I could combine or even remove?
Once you’ve studied the reverse outline closely, you can use it to make a plan. The notes section can be great for this, especially if most of your revisions are going to be at the chapter level (i.e. making big changes to chapters rather than doing a lot of cutting and reorganizing, etc.).
I find the reverse outline most useful for checking pacing and plot holes and making sure all my chapters are carrying the weight they should be. My 2016 Pitch Wars mentor once gave me the fantastic feedback that every chapter in a book should do more than one thing, and I find this reverse outline tool really helpful to make sure that this is happening in all my chapters.
You can find a blank spreadsheet attached here with my most used categories for columns, if you’d like to try using a reverse outline to help you make your own revision plan!
Jenny Howe is a writing and literature professor and a YA writer. When she’s not dreaming up stories about complicated girls, swoony kisses, and magical monsters, you can find her on Twitter (@jennylhowe) and Instagram (@jennyhowebooks) yelling about books and writing and posting pictures of her dog, Murray.