Reverse Outlining In 3 Easy Steps

If you’re a writer who is a planner, one of the first things you’ll do when starting a new project is to create an outline. If you’re a pantser, like me, you’ll shun outlining in favor of writing by the seat of your pants, or in other words, not knowing what you’re doing until you’ve done it.

You might have the incident that kicks the story off, the closing chapter formed in your head, or a vague idea about small-town secrets without actually knowing what that secret is yet, but you’re hopeful you’ll get the rest of the details as you go along—provided you’ve made enough offerings of chocolate to satisfy your muse.

Writing without a plan might be the only way some pantsers can work, but eventually, you’ll need something to make sense of all those chapters, and that is where outlining can help you out too.

Reverse Outlining

If you’ve never heard of reverse outlining before, or like me, you were doing it and not realizing it was an actual thing, reverse outlining is where you sit down after you’ve written your first draft, and you outline your book. Why it’s worth doing is because…

  • It helps you to see the whole story
  • It breaks down the incidents
  • It helps you to work out character motivations
  • It allows you to make a game plan for the second draft

How To Reverse Outline

This is what I do when I’m reverse outlining, so feel free to chop it, change it, tell me I’m wrong, or add your own tips in the comments.

I usually reverse outline in a notebook so that I can easily look at the notes when I’m working on the second draft from my computer screen. This also has the added bonus of creating some fun where I try to understand what I’ve handwritten. If this is a problem you don’t want, feel free to create your outline in a digital file.

1. Start At Chapter One And Break Down What Happens

Your notes don’t need to be detailed, just a few words or bullet points on what happens so that you can keep track of who is in the chapter, why, and what incidents occur.

2. Highlight The Highlights

Once you have every chapter broken down, go back over your notes and highlight the important parts. I’m talking reveals, plots twists, moments of despair, moments of triumph, and anything of significance.

3. Make A List Of What Needs To Be Added/Done

Thanks to your highlights, you should now be able to see how many plot holes need to be filled, if you have too many characters, where you need an event to prop up the sagging middle chapters, and if your villain reveal will work better three chapters earlier. With all of that established, make a new list of what you need to do to fix the issues, and then start working through it in the next draft (and then the 3rd, 4th, and probably 5th draft, too).

You may have other steps that you want to include, but for me, keeping the reverse outline as simple as possible means that I can get to the second draft sooner. It also keeps the task of rewriting and editing at a comfortable level instead of overwhelming me with so much work that I start procrasta-writing instead.

After the second draft has been written, I might outline again if it feels like the plot is missing something. More often than not, though, one reverse outline in enough to get a grasp on what’s written and to work out where to go from there.

If you haven’t reversed outlined before, I highly recommend it, no matter which draft you’re up to. And if you’ve outlined well and stuck to your notes, your reverse outline can even help you get started on one of those other fun writing projects—the synopsis!

— K.M. Allan

32 thoughts on “Reverse Outlining In 3 Easy Steps

  1. Quippish Quill

    It looks like I’ve been reverse outlining without realizing it too! I’ve found it useful to run through an initial draft just to get the words on the page and then create a more detailed scene-by-scene outline that helps me clarify the details.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep! I was doing the same and thought it was just the way I do things, then I heard another author mention reverse outlining on a podcast and realised that others do it too 😅.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Antoinette Truglio Martin

    I’ve been reverse outlining but refer to it as my roundabout writing process. It is probably not time efficient but it the only way I can see my stories through. Thanks for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post and advice as ever. I definitely did this too, having started my first draft with a very, very basic outline most of my major twists/ideas came to me along the way. After the first draft I had to go back and consider my outline before I began to edit. Thanks again for laying it out so clearly. ❤

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  4. I never outline on paper, it is always in my head. I recently discovered a file where I outlined my Arthurian saga and had a blast laughing because the story turned out the EXACT opposite of what I wrote on that outline. Reverse outline I hadn’t even heard of before, but after reading this, realised it is something I do but in my head, only – why do I have such a hard time taking notes, I wonder? It would probs make things easier for me…

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    1. Ah yes, how fun is it to look at old notes from the beginning of writing something, and then compare it to the finished product. It’s never the same. That’s one of the best things about writing, how much things change 😊.

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  5. I definitely reverse outline. My first draft is my outline. I actually think there’s not as much of a gap between plotters and pantsers as we’re led to believe. I think all pantsers plan at some point, and all plotters pants between plot points. I’m not convinced there’s a helluva lot of difference between us at all!

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  6. Def a pantser here–I don’t give a thought to much besides the opening image before starting to write. Maybe the problem the MC has to deal with. So, yes, all the logical brain stuff comes after the first draft is out. Great suggestions here. Thanks!

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  7. This is a great idea and you’re right, many of us do this without realizing it.

    A few years back I had a great idea but the protagonist fell flat. I figured him out and now I’m back at it. I’m going over the chapters and redoing them. So, in a sense, I’m reverse outlining.

    Learn something new every day.

    Excellent tip. Thank you!!!

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  8. That sounds similar to what I did for my synopsis (don’t you HATE a synopsis!). It was interesting to see how it differed from my original planning spreadsheet (which I ALWAYS forget to update once I get to writing).

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