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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technical Writing: Reverse Outlining for Iterative Edits

Technical Writing: Reverse Outlining for Iterative Edits

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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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