In this post, Gabrielle tries out my Reverse Outlining method, which I discussed on the blog in March.
Gabrielle is a PhD student in the History department at University College London. She is in the final stages of writing up her thesis on Late Antique administration and rhetoric, and lives with a demanding cat. You can find her on Twitter, or at academia.edu.
My friend Ellie Mackin and I have been having quite a few conversations about academic writing these days. Both of us are very keen on that aspect of academic research and we are specifically concerned about structure and clarity. When it came to the reverse outline technique, however, I was frankly a little too relaxed. I had been doing it instinctively, as I was editing, and I thought that it made my prose more fluid this way. But it didn’t. So I read Ellie’s blog article about it and decided to follow the steps properly, as an experiment.
1. I printed out my chapter. After I managed to reorganise what came out of the printer in the right order (why do I always forgot to enable page numbers on Word?!), I finally managed to get rid of the cat and sat down to work. I had never edited from paper before but I took to it quite rapidly. In a way, it felt like marking someone else’s essay, which made the whole process a little less stressful.
2. I numbered all of my paragraphs and labelled them, on a separate piece of paper. During this process I gigged things around. I had already been quite careful about structure in that chapter (my weakest) so there was not much movement between sections. I noted down the new order of paragraphs on the margins, in a different coloured pen (because the more colours, the better, as far as stationary goes). I think this gave me a better overall picture of the chapter than editing from the computer would have done. Again, I think it was because I felt more removed from it. The possibility of easily flicking between pages and of going back and forth was also helpful: no one writes, or researches, in a perfectly linear way (which is also why I cannot read academic books electronically either. I constantly need to go back/ahead). Interestingly, what I thought was my strongest section in that chapter was the one that needed the most work.
3. After the handwritten part of the process, I began to type up all the changes highlighted onto my original word document. This, I felt, was the most fastidious step. It took me over a week to complete it as I kept on doing something else instead. I simply could not be bothered. However, I felt that it needed to be done while still fresh in my memory, so I forced myself to do a little bit every day. I wonder how one could make this process a little less cumbersome.
4. All this restructuring really forced me to focus on my overall argument, and I was able to write a satisfactory mini conclusion. I think this will really help when it comes to writing the big conclusion!
All in all, I have really seen the benefits of a step-by-step methodology for the editing process of a chapter. The fact that there was a fixed process was strangely reassuring. I knew what I had to do, I did it, and felt satisfied afterwards. I think this was probably the most useful aspect of this whole process