The Magical Reverse Outline

by Brandie June
published in Writing

You have just finished your rough draft! Congrats! That is an epic feat, and you deserve to celebrate. There should probably be cake at this celebration. You earned it. Take the moment to relish your magnificent accomplishment, eat some cake, maybe take a few weeks off so you can see your story with new eyes when you get back to it.

But then what? How do you transform your first draft into a polished piece? For me, the task used to be overwhelming. I could be fun and carefree as I wrote my rough draft. I gave myself permission to write the story, not worrying if it were good or bad, knowing I could edit it later. 

Eventually, that fateful “later” day came, when I had to take my 70,000 words and edit them. I had no idea where to begin. Do I start rereading at the beginning, making changes as I see them along the way? But how would I keep track of the bigger thematic elements or pacing issues? How could I remember to drop breadcrumbs in the early chapters for a payoff that happens on page 145? Panic would start to set in. My rough draft became a beast that felt too big to manage.

Then I discovered the magical reverse outline. It was a way to get a high-level look at my novel, to condense the main plot into several manageable pages. From there, I could see the big changes I needed to make. It gave me a starting point to edit.

I’ll explain how it works, but the beauty of a reverse outline is that it works regardless of whether you prefer to plot or pants your way through your rough draft. The reverse outline isn’t about creating the initial story. Rather, it’s sole focus is to divide the task of editing into bite-size pieces.

Step 1: Read & Reverse Outline

During this initial phase, you don’t make any changes to your novel. This rough draft probably took you a while to write, so your memory of some of the early chapters might be a bit fuzzy. All you do in this step is to reread your manuscript and make notes of what happens. 

I like to write a few sentences summarizing each chapter. When I’m done, I have a reverse outline that is a few pages. If you are a pantser, this will help you get an overview of your whole story for the first time. If you’re a plotter, a reverse outline will give you an accurate view of what you’ve written, in case some of your story veered away from your initial outline.

Step 2: Review & Edit Outline

Set aside your rough draft and just look at your reverse outline. Do you see any gaping plot holes? Maybe noticed some contradictions in the story? Perhaps you notice that not much happens over several chapters and they can be combined into one. Or you might notice that you are rushing over an important part of the story and adding a chapter there would help flesh it out. 

This is where you should think about those big picture changes. I like to highlight my editing notes in my reverse outline so I know what areas of my draft I need to go back to and make changes. If some chapters don’t need big changes, I know that I can skip them for now.

Step 3: Transfer Changes To Novel

Now that you know the places in the draft that need these changes, you can jump right to those points and work on the big problems first. This is the stage where you go and add that chapter or fix the pacing in the section that feels too slow. 

Step 3.5 (Optional): Repeat

Maybe you only need one pass with a reverse outline. If so, that’s great. Maybe you made such enormous changes that it makes sense to do the process again. If so, that’s also great. 

Either way, you are getting closer to a finished, polished novel. You rock.

Step 4: Set Reverse Outline Aside

Now that your big changes are done, it is time to go back for the subtler changes, the ones that don’t necessarily directly affect the plot, but make for a better read. This is where you can set aside your reverse outline and go through your second (or third or fourth) draft and read it, revising wording that sounds awkward, fixing typos, adding in more specific details… 

Since you are used to seeing your own work, I suggest you read your manuscript aloud or change the font or read a printed version if you wrote it on the computer. Any of these changes will help you see your work with fresher eyes, and you will be more likely to catch the smaller mistakes.

Now you know the secret of the magical reverse outline. Time to finish that celebratory cake and get back to the work and joy of being a writer. 

Pull out that rough draft, the one you have been dreading to edit because you don’t know how to tackle revising a whole manuscript. With the reverse outline, you have the tools to start your editing journey, and if you keep at it, eventually you will have a polished piece! 

Brandie June spent most of her childhood onstage or reading, as both activities let her live in fantastic stories. She moved to Los Angeles to study acting at UCLA, and eventually branched out into costume design and playwriting. While she spends most of her free time writing, she will still take any excuse to play dress-up, especially if it involves wearing a crown. She happily promotes more stories as a marketing director for kids’ films and anime. When not writing or marketing, she can often be found doing aerial arts, playing board games, drinking too much espresso, and coming up with new art projects. She lives with her husband, two spoiled rescue pups, a spoiled cat, six fish tanks, and five bookshelves. You can find out more about her on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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