I’ve been asked a lot recently how I revise, and specifically, what reverse outlining is. I get even more questions when people see my photos of my notecard system.
What Is A Reverse Outline?
Whenever I sit down to revise a manuscript, the first thing I do is do a reverse outline. This means I’m writing down what actually exists on the page, versus what my outline said or what I thought would happen or what should happen. I frequently write more than one point of view so I use different colored index cards for different POVs. I write down the chapter number, the POV character’s name, and what happens and/or the emotional arc I need to have happen. On the back, I write “Edits” at the top with a list of things I KNOW I need to fix if I happen to know that. If I don’t, then I leave it blank under edits.
I also make a 6 card board for the 3 acts of a book. Opening Scene, First Plot Point, Midpoint, Second Plot Point, Climax, Closing Scene. Sometimes, this is where I find the first problems. Almost always, I fail to have a clear midpoint of the book. Oops.
How I Use The Reverse Outline
1. Finding Gaps in the Narrative
Sometimes I find gaps right away. If I look at my reverse outline and there are too many cards of one color in a row, then I’m probably losing one of the character’s arcs. Those are easy to spot. But another way I find gaps in the narrative is if my six card/three acts board mentions a major plot point…but that plot point doesn’t actually show up on the reverse outline cards. You’d be surprised how often this happens. Or maybe you wouldn’t be surprised.
But the next way I find gaps is by looking for the connections between cards/scenes. A great thing I learned from the writers of South Park is that the words “but” or “therefore” should connect the beats of a story (or for us novelists, scenes), NOT “and then”. And then = a boring story. But or therefore contribute to rising tension and stakes in the story.
I’ll write on the cards one of those two words…unless I can’t figure out whether it’s but or therefore, which probably means it’s an And Then. Oops. Bad Katherine! I rotate those cards vertical so that they’re easy to find and then fix.
2. Controlling Subplots
I like index cards because I can replace them or move them around quite easily. It also means I can take out all the cards for one character’s POV and make sure that I have character arcs and subplots moving smoothly if I look at individual threads of the story. I can rearrange, move things around, figure out if information needs to come before or after other information, all without before I go messing around in my master doc.
3. Manuscripts are overwhelming. Notecards are manageable and tangible.
I’m a visual learner and a kinesthetic learner, so this might just be a me thing. But when I sit down to revise something that is 70,000+ words, multiple points of view, with lots of different strings to hold, I get overwhelmed. Being able to work in something that’s tangible, handwritten, and not as scary as my disaster of a Word doc is really helpful and keeps me from getting TOO panicky and freaked out. I don’t say “I can’t” anymore. I say, “Oh god, oh god, oh god, I don’t know how to do this” and do the reverse outline anyway. And then I move forward from there.
My Novel Has Three Timelines!
Mine too! I just gave timelines different color cards.
My Novel Isn’t Finished!
Finish it. Then do this. This is a revision method.
What if I already outline?
I write outlines, but rarely use them once I start writing. I do not reference it in revisions unless I cannot remember something specific (in which case, it usually isn’t important but sometimes I want it) or it’s a spelling thing and that’s the only place where the word/country name/person’s name is written down. What you ended up writing is always more important than what you meant to write. That’s the story that wants to be told.
I’ll be answering questions about this on Twitter (@bibliogato) or here in the comments! Let me know if you need help implementing this or have used this as well!