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Technical Writing: Reverse Outlining for Iterative Edits

T.R. Girill Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: Reverse Outlining for Iterative Edits

Iterative Design Meets Text

Empirical studies show that effective nonfiction writers revise
more thoroughly and more often than do novice or weak writers. One
reason is that experience has given them a good metalinguistic sense
of their draft's content. Effective writers can tell what each
draft sentence is about and what role it is supposed to play, so
they can more easily detect weak execution.

Such text revision is just a special case of the iterative
design that good engineers use to refine a prototype (a draft version
of an aircraft or piece of software or some other product) to
better meet
* physical constraints (size, shape, duration), and
* user needs (such as helpfulness, reliability, cost).
That is why iterative text design is one of the half-dozen themes
that recur across grade levels throughout the Common Core State
Standards for nonfiction communication skills. Engineers have
learned to "facet the design" (to adjust one draft feature after
another) to gradually improve their prototype product in successive
review cycles.

But this comparison, this iterative design advice, is useless
unless a struggling technical writer knows how to carry it out.
For novice or weak writers how to carry it out may be a crucial
missing cognitive skill (how do I even begin to "facet the design"
of my draft lab report or project abstract?). One very practical
response is to teach your science students reverse outlining.

The Reverse Outlining Technique

Refined by Cynthia L. King of the Naval Post Graduate School
at Monterey, California ("Reverse Outlining: A Method for Effective
Revision of Document Structure," IEEE Transactions on Professional
Communication, 55(3), 254-261, Sept. 2012, http://dx.doi.org/
TPC2012.2207838), reverse outlining is a way for ineffective
writers to achieve a complex result through three individually
simple, easily teachable design moves:

1. LIST the topic of each sentence (or, for long drafts, for each
paragraph) in the draft. Use a term or short phrase to

A. categorize its content (what is it about?).
Example: "revision's effectiveness" is what the first
sentence in this note is about), or

B. expose the text structure (six instances of one
claim or six different claims in a row?).
Example: for this note's first paragraph--
revisions's effectiveness
metalinguistic basis
weak execution, or

C. reveal missing or misplaced pieces.
Example: do we need a reference/URL for the
Common Core State Standards in paragraph two?

2. ARRANGE the disclosed topics into a simple hierarchical
framework, a topic outline.

3. REVISE the draft guided by this now-exposed topic structure.

A. reorganize to better use the existing sentences,
whose role is now more clear, to meet audience needs, or

B. add new content to clarify confusions, fill holes,
or complete the argument (for example, does "facet the
design" need an illustration?), or

C. deploy advanced organizers (headings, lists, summaries)
to better deliver moves A. and B. to readers (if this
list of revisions were not already itemized, it certainly
should be, for instance).

Reverse outlining is thus just another (in this case, recursive)
application of the basic good-description techniques found in
guidelines such as the one at
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/trgintro3.html ).

From a communication perspective, Cynthia King notes that
"this structured approach is less overwhelming than other ways
they [students] might approach the[eir own draft] text" (p. 260).
From a real-world perspective, reverse outlining leads students
toward the engineering goal of a "minimum viable product."
They either discover how to adapt their prototype technical text
to meet "market" (intended audience) needs or they realize that
they must start over. In either case, reverse outlining enables
them to participate in the vital process of text engineering.

(For a more demanding but more revealing variation, ask
students to reverse outline their draft by stressing VERBS rather
than nouns. This exposes their assertions--or often, their lack
of assertions--not just their topics. Example for the first
sentence of this note: "revision promotes effectiveness.")

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