Rethinking College Writing Instruction


Cormac McCarthy on editing science

McCarthy is an amazing prose stylist and his ideas about editing scientific writing are spot on, as you would expect. He wants simplicity, economy, terseness, order. His ideas are in this article from Nature. Link

Well worth reading, whether you are an editor or a teacher or learner.

McCarthy wrote No Country for Old Men and The Road. They are both amazing, super strong. If you love powerful prose, you know about McCarthy. The Road is in the league of Shakespeare or Faulkner.

A soprano who assigns the College Writing Guide

Here’s an endorsement letter from Amy Horst, a veteran singing instructor assigned to teach a writing-intensive course.

I have spent my career teaching singing and performing as a soprano singer. In the past five years, I have begun teaching writing in some of my classes as part of the University of Hawaii’s Writing Intensive program.

Because I just started teaching writing five years ago, my confidence in my abilities needed a boost. Beyond this, I really needed specifics that I could rely on to help my students write better. I’m used to teaching the foundational skills of singing: posture, breathing, and jaw/tongue position. I also teach foundations of music reading/writing: note names, rhythms, and scales. Until I found the College Writing Guide, I didn’t know that writing could be taught in a similarly systematic, skills-based manner.

I found the College Writing Guide in a frantic late night internet search for resources, after I realized that my students needed much more help than I was providing. My light-bulb moment came when I asked students to name some verbs, and one student hesitantly asked if the word “of” was a verb. I don’t have any formal training in how to teach students to write well, or at all. During my schooling, teachers generally noted that my writing demonstrated some skill and an occasional flair of possible talent. But most of my time and talent went to studying singing, so I didn’t pay too much attention. Suddenly, I was eager for specific information.

The most surprising aspect of the College Writing Guide, initially, was John’s personal accessibility. He provided individual and small group coaching by phone on several occasions. He answered specific questions that I had about how to handle issues with my students’ writing.

Ultimately, the most surprising and reassuring part of using the College Writing Guide has been the skills-based approach to improving writing. As a voice teacher, I know how to tell students to demonstrate proper posture for singing. Posture makes singing possible. Now I understand that teaching students to identify and use concrete nouns works the same way. Concrete nouns make writing possible. Similarly, breathing drives singing; and active verbs drive writing. These skills make writing possible, and most of all, they make writing clear.

My students come from a wide variety of backgrounds. A class of 25 students may include 15 languages spoken by the students. I asked John several times how to handle teaching sentence structure in connection with the CWG skills-based lessons, because my students’ grasp of sentence structure in written English varies widely. While we have discussed several possible options, I have discovered, after five semesters, that simply focusing on skill-building as the CWG suggests improves sentence structure. After a semester of working through the skills in the CWG, students who struggled with sentence structure demonstrate increased clarity and coherence in their sentence structure. It turns out that as long as we focus on concrete nouns, people language, active verbs, and the writing techniques build on those skills, sentence structure comes into focus.

Decades of teaching singing made me feel unprepared to teach writing. The College Writing Guide and John Maguire himself helped me understand that singing skills and writing skills can both be taught sequentially, specifically, and effectively. And that, as my voice teacher self would say, is something to sing about.


Writing is a behavior–like playing tennis

Teachers rarely question the idea that writing is thinking. You know the cliche: Writing is thinking on paper.

But they should. Writing is thinking on paper, yes, but that’s not the best way to teach it. Far better is to teach good writing habits as behaviors that can be practiced and made second nature. When we do this, we can benefit from the latest research on effective behavior change. Athletic coaches use that research. Why shouldn’t we?

Animal trainer Karen Pryor, now in her 80s, published a brilliant break-through book on training nearly 40 years ago. It’s called Don’t Shoot the Dog! She writes that you can train any animal—fish or fowl, dog or human—to do almost anything physically possible. You just communicate what behavior you want and deliver rewards. You go step by step, rewarding and reinforcing progress at each stage, until you get the final result.  Behavior coaches like Pryor, in other words, (1) identify the final behavior wanted, and (2) figure a series of steps that will get there.

Dear instructors, why is college writing not taught that way? You probably know the answers.

First, the academic bigwigs cannot agree on what behavior they want. They won’t define “good writing.” They pretend that all styles are equal, that a personal voice is all that matters and that squashing a student’s personal voice is unthinkable. Thus, they can’t announce If the animal can do X consistently, it has learned the skill. They can’t or won’t establish a target.

Second, without a defined target skill to aim for, academics cannot break instruction down into steps, either. (Yes, they do talk about “steps” of the writing process, but without a final behavior goal such steps are aimless.)

I submit that we need a behavioral training method.It should include:
1. The assumption that writing is a behavioral performance, like swinging a tennis racket or diving or improvising jazz piano
2. An objective definition of the good performance
3. A breakdown of the performance into parts
4. An identifiable sequence of actions that will train the skill

There is a new method like that, as readers of this blog know. It’s called the Readable Writing Method.

It assumes writing is a performance, not unlike playing tennis. It uses an objective definition of the good performance—prose that scores well on the Flesch readability scale. (An explanation follows) Since the factors that produce a good Flesch score are known, students can be trained in them. Under expert eyes, students can move from easy behaviors to harder ones, always with the aim of readable writing in mind.

The linguistic researcher Rudolf Flesch worked at Columbia University in the 1940s and 1950s. He became a best selling author with his books on writing. Flesch fully proved that we what consider readable writing is determined by the intersection of three linguistic variables–average sentence length, average syllable length, and percentage of what he called “human interest words.”

Although there’s a range of readable styles, it’s fairly narrow. No one calls prose “readable” that has an average sentence length of 90 words per sentence. We can train students to write in the band of readable styles and produce papers that that score well, and we do. (For sentence length, our students aim for an average 15-17 words per sentence.)

In Readable Writing Method, students learn to write clear, active and interesting sentences at will. We make them identify and edit their fuzzy and boring sentences themselves.

Then in the second part of the course, we train students to create organized essays from those interesting sentences. The performance standard: the reader must never get lost.

Will training to hit certain numerical targets result in soulless, mechanical writing? Not at all. Learning the rules of readability is like learning the rules of baseball. Learning the rules of baseball doesn’t produce mechanical or soulless ball players, does it? Training college freshmen in being readable—putting that in front of them as a goal—can only benefit them. The student who understands readable writing is empowered to be eloquent.

Though it’s just beginning to spread, the Readable Writing Method of behavioral training does exist. Within it, students are reading differently, writing differently and seeing the categories of language differently.

It can be hard to trust a new method. Like the first man who jumped from an airplane with a parachute, you’ll find it hard to believe that Readable Writing activities will be sufficient to support the student. You’ll fear focusing on readable sentences and essays will take student attention away from thinking. You’ll discover, though, that putting student attention on the exact words and sentences they are using actually glues their attention to the quality of their thinking. Closer attention to words—the essence of this course–means closer attention to thinking.

If you took all your first-year writing syllabi to the backyard, put them into a pile and burned them, how would you start back up? Would you try to remember your most recent course outline? Or would you create something new? If something new, think behavior and write this at the top of your page:

                 What do I want students to be able to DO on their own at the end of 14 weeks? How can I get them there?




Michael Laser: “Even within a standard curriculum, you can teach students to write better sentences.”

Here’s an interesting guest post from friend Mike Laser on how he teaches sentences in mini-lessons–even within a constrained syllabus that he can’t alter.

Instructor, Montclair State University

Every freshman composition instructor knows how hard it is to elicit graceful sentences from awkward writers.
I’ve been searching for effective ways to raise the level of my students’ work ever since I started teaching. John Maguire’s methods have impressed and inspired me. I especially like his idea of giving students lessons and practice in sentence writing before asking them to draft full-length essays
But not all of us have the freedom to do that. The university where I teach has some core requirements for its freshman writing classes—an understandable quality-control measure when you offer more than a hundred sections, taught mainly by adjuncts. The curriculum leaves no room for eight weeks of preliminary skill-building. My students are required to write three essays in each fourteen-week semester, three drafts per essay. We start work on their first essay by Week Three.
Though I can’t design my own curriculum, I’ve found a way to build sentence skills into my teaching. Each class meeting includes a lesson in one of the skills I think will make the biggest difference to my students. If you visit my website,, you can see the skills I teach and the basic strategy I use—which borrows some key ideas from John.
Here’s the method in brief:

• On Day One, I talk to students about why they should put serious effort into this class, even if English is their least favorite subject. This is more important than it may sound. Unless they care enough to work at it, they’ll make little progress.
• Also during that first class, I show them a few terrible sentences written by past students and ask what they think. Then I show them edited versions of the same sentences. With this evidence in front of them, they begin to recognize that some sentences desperately need revising—and that it’s possible to fix even the worst clunker.
• Over the course of the semester, I teach a few strategies for improving problem sentences, and some simple ways to write more clearly and gracefully.
• I also show them some common mistakes in grammar and punctuation, and train them to avoid making these mistakes.
• They practice each new skill as they learn it, by writing sentences that use the concept.

   And here’s how I fit these lessons into a typical class session:
• We discuss the text they read for homework.
• The students write for five minutes in response to a question about the text. (This frequent, low-stakes practice trains them to write without paralyzing anxiety.)
• I teach a lesson on a sentence skill.
• I ask them to express the main idea of their in-class writing in one polished, grammatically correct sentence—using the skill they just learned.
• Once they’re satisfied with their sentences, students post them on Padlet, a website that lets the whole class see what each student has written (anonymously, if they prefer). I point out sentences I consider especially good, and explain why.
• I also teach a lesson on a key essay-writing skill in every class—for example, refining a thesis, or addressing opposing arguments.

   Clearly, students would make more progress if we had more time to spend on sentence skills. But this method has yielded much better results than anything I tried before.
I hope you’ll visit to learn more. If you’d like to use my lesson plans and handouts, they’re included in my book, The College Writing Clinic, which is available on Amazon and, in print and digital formats.

Thinking about “hegemony” in college writing circles

It’s a classic bad move to begin an essay with a definition, but I am getting obsessed with this weird word hegemony. It’s always seemed a slanted word to me. In the 60s when I was in college, leftie student activists slathered it like mustard on their favorite hotdog word, imperialism, but they were so sloppy with it I never cared much what the word meant. As they used it, hegemony was a synonym for badness.  U.S. hegemony meant U.S. badness.

 But just now I ran across hegemony in a piece asserting that academics often stifle dissent “to maintain their narrative and enforce cultural hegemony” and I thought I’d better look up the word and get a precise take on it.

My report.  Turns out the word is Greek, which is not surprising by its sound, and it referred originally to the dominance of Greek city states by stronger city states. Philip of Macedon, for example, put together a Hellenic League that dominated much of Greece in his time. He was the hegemon, or dominant leader.

The meaning of the word has expanded, as is natural. Now hegemony is political or cultural dominance over others. In Greece, it was one king over others. In high school, the hegemony of the popular kids over the other students means that they determine what is and is not cool. In Marxist philosophy, Wikipedia explains, cultural hegemony means the domination of a culturally diverse society by a ruling class that manipulates the culture of that society so its view becomes the norm.

So the quote “Academics stifle dissent to enforce their cultural hegemony” really means, at bottom, “Academics shut people up in order to remain in charge.”

Conceding many exceptions, of course, it still rings true that some academics try to shut people up just for the power buzz involved, just to dominate. It holds true in the world of college writing, where the power brokers enforce an official dogma not by arguing for its truth, but by stifling all disagreement. More on this later.

link I referred to:

Reasoning from first principles

I ran across two worthwhile essays in the last week. The first was about reasoning from first principles, and it linked to the second, about Elon Musk. Both were written by Tim Urban. I’ll put the links at the bottom of this post.

I’m writing now (1) to sketch how I came to readable writing by reasoning from first principles, and (2) to quote an amazing paragraph from Elon Musk.

Tim Urban:

First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems. Sometimes called “reasoning from first principles,” the idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up. It’s one of the best ways to learn to think for yourself.
This approach was used by the philosopher Aristotle and is used now by Elon Musk and Charlie Munger. It allows them to cut through the fog of shoddy reasoning and inadequate analogies to see opportunities that others miss.

I read that and called out aloud to my wife, “This guy has captured what my method is about, sweetie. He’s talking about reasoning from first principles, and that’s what I did!”
“Yes, dear,” she said soothingly, “everybody knows that.”
“No! Only people who are teaching the method get it. The great big outside world doesn’t know I constructed it from first principles!”
“I guess you’re right about that, dear, but some day they will, don’t you think?”

The readable writing method solves the difficult problem of slow progress in freshman writing courses. Those of you using the book know it’s a  a reverse-engineered product. It started when I made a list of all the obstacles to learning that students face in a comp course, and then asked what I could invent to deal with them.

The major obstacle to student learning, I realized, is the problem of jumping around and changing focus in the course. Teachers jump randomly from high-level instruction, say on how to write an essay, to low-level instruction, for example, on fixing sentence fragments. It’s the randomness that’s the problem. Haphazardly jumping from focus to focus makes learning very hard. The solution from first principles is  a steady focus, with no lurching about. The solution would be a two-part course with two solid themes, one before the othter. The first half would focus on the sentence, in depth. The second half would focus on essay-writing. This single decision to stop jumping around inside the course did indeed solve most problems and speeded up student learning.

Here’s the quote about rockets I mentioned. Elon Musk is speaking. (Emphasis mine).

Historically, all rockets have been expensive, so therefore, in the future, all rockets will be expensive. But actually that’s not true. If you say, what is a rocket made of? It’s made of aluminum, titanium, copper, carbon fiber. And you can break it down and say, what is the raw material cost of all these components? And if you have them stacked on the floor and could wave a magic wand so that the cost of rearranging the atoms was zero, then what would the cost of the rocket be? And I was like, wow, okay, it’s really small—it’s like 2% of what a rocket costs. So clearly it would be in how the atoms are arranged—so you’ve got to figure out how can we get the atoms in the right shape much more efficiently. And so I had a series of meetings on Saturdays with people, some of whom were still working at the big aerospace companies, just to try to figure out if there’s some catch here that I’m not appreciating. And I couldn’t figure it out. There doesn’t seem to be any catch. So I started SpaceX.

At some future date, I will quote that when I talk with instructors and researchers about writing. I will say:

“Writing skill is clearly in how the synapses are arranged. So we’ve got to figure out how we can get the synapses in the right shape much more efficiently.”

Here’s another quote the serious teacher ought to contemplate, from Richard Feynman:

“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!”

More on these ideas later.


LINKS: (On first principles Farnum Street). : On Elon Musk (Wait but Why).

Most of our incoming freshmen will not learn how to write

America’s writing instructors…

That American students and college graduates write lousy prose is not disputable. The Chronicle of Higher Education runs op-eds about it all the time.  The Washington Post published at least three big blog posts on the subject in 2017.  The New York Times ran a well-reported 2,000-word story by Dana Goldstein called “Why Kids Can’t Write.” However, the headline we’d like to see (“Business Owners Say College Grads Writing More Lucidly Than Ever”) will appear only in The Onion.

The concerned feature stories are symptomatic and correct, as far as they go, but they leave out the scale of the problem, the causes of the problem, and likely solutions.

The scale of the problem is huge. About 3.1 million freshmen will enter American colleges this fall, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. All these 3.1 million will take some kind of first year writing course, even if it’s remedial. The average football stadium holds about 70,000 fans, which means this fall’s incoming freshmen will fill about 44 football stadiums. They will all be taking writing courses.

Their instructors (figuring 20 students per section) will be an army of 77,500 teachers Most will be adjuncts, and if you packed them into their own football stadium, they’d fill every seat. Let’s get that camera image clear: a large football stadium packed absolutely fill with adult women and men, and every seat is occupied by someone teaching freshman comp this fall,  and most of them must be fairly ineffective at teaching students to write. Otherwise we wouldn’t have all those headlines to read.

The causes of poor writing instruction are several, including (1) the students are poorly prepared in high school, (2) most of the teachers are poorly paid part-timers, (3) many teachers are grad students with no teaching experience and (4) the field of Rhetoric and Composition is slow-moving, committed to ineffective methods and suspicious of new ideas.

The most scandalous fact—and the newspaper reporters miss this—is that the power structure in Rhetoric and Composition is no longer interested in teaching writing. Phillip Mink, an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Delaware, wrote me an email last year and said:

The college writing profession has made a conscious decision not to teach style… If you review the scholarly literature, which I have done, you will find virtually nothing about student prose at all. [To these people] the quality of student prose is nothing more than an afterthought.

Outside the power structure, we have the adjuncts, who do most of the instruction, and many are trying to teach writing and are not bad at it. But the power structure in the field—those on tenure tracks with PhDs—if Dr. Mink is right—have conveniently defined composition to exclude instruction in prose style. The adjuncts, the untouchables in this caste system, do the labor of trying to teach writing. The Brahmins way above them teach things slightly related to writing, such as how writing, images and ideas create impact and circulate to address the issues facing our communities.  The Brahmins set the official standards, and they stay clear of teaching students how to write readable sentences.

Evidence that the power structure in composition actually killed the teaching of sentences as a serious effort comes from Robert J. Connors’s “The Erasure of the Sentence.”  Connors pointedly quotes professor James Moffett as saying, “It’s about time the sentence was put in its place”

The infection of college writing with social-justice activism is another problem, and not a small trend, according to George Gopen, emeritus professor at Duke University and author of Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Reader’s Perspective (2004). Dr. Gopen insists that writing is about clear communication to the reader. That’s the common-sense understanding, but it’s out of favor among the Brahmins and Dr. Gopen stands mostly alone. When he’s asked what would turn American college writing around, he says, “Stop teaching social ethics and start teaching writing.”

The best likely solution would be direct instruction in the classic English plain style, the sentence style that serves the reader best. It would require a revolution for a college writing profession that now barely attends to the reader.

Imagine those 44 stadiums full of freshmen writers—all colors and sizes from all over the country—perhaps eager to learn. They will learn something in comp, but not much about how to be clear or interesting to a reader. Few of their teachers will have stressed the key questions that professional editors raise all the time: How will the reader understand this? Will this confuse your reader? Can you simplify this so the reader gets it right away?

To make the turnaround, we could do worse than return to the original guru of reader service, the late Rudolf Flesch, author of The Art of Readable Writing (1949).  He invented the concept of readability scoring, and though it’s been degraded to a bit of a joke by computerized word-counting, it still has a lot of value. If we adjusted his ideas of readability a little bit, they would make a great backbone for a new type of college writing course. We really need tightly focused training in creating readable prose. It can be done, and students would benefit hugely from having a single and practical target to hit: being readable and interesting writers.

  • The Flesch approach is practical. It uses objective numerical standards as guides to the prose quality, such as average sentence length, and other word ratios. Students can adjust their behavior and gain control over their writing. They gain in self-efficacy.
  • The Flesch approach lends itself to staging from simpler skills to more difficult—something needed with today’s poorly prepared students.
  • Finally, contrary to repeated arguments from academics, the readability approach covers a wide range of readable styles, not the short-sentence style as Flesch’s detractors claimed.  Rudolf Flesch in fact argued strongly against using his insights to write at a primer-level See Spot run style.

One commenter on the Times article “Why Kids Can’t Write” made the interesting point that writing teachers decline to do what coaches do, which is run drills on the fundamentals, even though anyone who watches a well-played football game knows that’s what works.

That same student that you hope is absorbing good writing through reading, or whose voice you don’t want to stifle, goes after school to sports practice, where they drill for hours to be ready for the game. The coaches don’t merely show students films of great plays, nor are they afraid that their kids can’t be creative. They understand that without control of fundamentals, talent is wasted.

The fundamentals of written communication are sentence handling and being clear for the reader. A sequenced skill course in readable writing, if widely adopted, would begin to repair the huge mess that college writing now is.


How to confuse writing students

Suppose your skating coach told you to try skating with your laces tied, would you do it? You’d know enough not to attempt it.

In freshman comp, instructors often set up a situation that quietly sabotages learning the way tied laces would, but the students don’t realize they’re being set up to fail. They attempt to comply with the instructors but their learning goes slowly. Some then blame themselves for being stupid.

I’ve described this in many places, but will repeat it with the ice-skating image in mind.

Writing is a two-tier, or two-level skill. We all know that, but we don’t apply it when we teach. Writing is NOT one thing, but two things, in a hierarchy. The first skill is sentence construction, that is, the writing down of good and solid sentences. The second skill is the arrangement of those solid sentences into an essay, letter, term-paper or report. Without those solid sentences, no essay or report is possible.

The two skills are related, closely related for that matter, but they are not the same. Sentences–they’re one thing. Essays–though they require sentences as building blocks–they are arrangements of sentences.

Teachers who ignore the difference, and jump around from one to the other, produce confusion in their students. Since these are two different skills, they should be taught separately. Sentence writing should be taught as its own topic. Essay writing (the arrangement of sentences) should be taught as its own topic. It’s obvious which skill comes first.

Forty years ago, before open admissions to community colleges, etc, no one showed up in college writing bad sentences, fragments or run-ons. Those students did not need much, if any, sentence instruction. But today students write incompetent sentences and can’t see them nor fix them. Given this fact, sentences must be covered.

But don’t stir instruction about sentences into a comp course willy-nilly, whenever you’re inspired. Doing that is confusing, especially to the students who really don’t understand the basics of sentences and have to master them. All the sentence instruction should come first. Whatever you have to say about writing sentences should be taught as its own unit, early in the course. That way the slower students who need the material most have a chance to learn.

Jumbling sentence instruction into a course any old way just makes things so much harder. It’s a burden like having your skate laces tied together. Don’t do it.

At the Writing Program Administrators meeting, Sacramento

The WPA kindly let me have a low-cost display table in Sacramento in late July. Kelly Kinney of the University of Wyoming put out the books and the signage, and everything went well. Conference attendees picked up 33 of the 35 books, and the other two went to interested graduate students.  All in all, it was a success—if getting copies of this method into the hands of Writing Program Administrators is what counts.

Now, though, what happens? An intriguing, odd book doesn’t necessarily move people into action. It probably tenderizes the brain a little, sets up small eddies of thought that might sound like he’s teaching grammar without teaching grammar or why the intense interest in things you can drop on your foot?

Because I didn’t have the budget for a cross-country trip to Sacramento, the cheap and shoe-string show had to serve. Nonetheless, the truth is the truth, no matter the medium that carries it. The truth that writing is behavior, and that it can be taught as intelligent behavior—that holds even when presented in a Xeroxed and comb-bound workbook.

I invite any attendees at the Sacramento meeting who picked up the book and now want more information about this unique method of teaching writing to get in touch fast. Just send an email or use the contact form. I’ll respond as fast as possible.















Here’s how I do a “reverse outline” to redeem a confused working draft

Half of writing well is editing your own work, and it’s not always easy even for an experienced writer. I’ve been writing for 40+ years but sometimes still get lost in my drafts and stand there as confused as anybody. It happened just this week. I was writing a 1200-word op-ed on readable writing, as usual, but I lost control of it. I just wrote myself into a corner. The piece had many ideas and facts I wanted in,  but I kept jamming new ideas in and it was disorganized. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. I was really ticked off and about to give up on it.

Sometimes, in that dark spot of desperation, a little voice speaks to me like Jiminy Cricket, and this time the voice said Do a reverse outline. I usually resort to this when I have kept adding ideas to an essay that don’t fit in smoothly. They sorta fit but they sorta don’t fit, and the resulting paper feels jumbled.

A reverse outline outlines what you have already written.  I used to think I invented reverse outlining but I can see from the Web that many have written about it. To my mind, they make the process too complicated, but if you want to see what they say, a halfway decent piece is here.

But the simplest way to do it–and we’re professionals here who want to save time, yes?–is just to reformat your essay. Shrink the typesize a bit, and reformat it. Make a wide left margin of maybe 3 inches. Print it out. Now you have what you wrote, with a lot of white space to work in. Now do the reverse outline by reading each paragraph and summarizing it in a word–no more than a phrase or two–which you write by hand next to it. You can see your draft on the right, with a crude restatement of each paragraph on the left. That crude restatement is pure gold, though.

Immediately you’ll be able to see the structural problems. Yesterday, for instance, I instantly saw my forecast sentence was sloppy. It only named one topic (scale) when the paper went much beyond scale. I immediately made it a three-part forecast (scale, cause, solutions) and and saw that the body would have to match it, of course. Now that I was predicting the middle of the paper as three topics, I could see what didn’t fit into those three boxes. I knew in a flash what to take out. Confusion was over.

This can work fast. I think I did the reverse outline (actually two in a row) beginning at 5:15 pm, and I had the final draft done by 6:30. At 5:15 I was in the mood called this is crap, I’m lost with this crap and I want to quit but I reverse-outlined the piece and changed it, because I could see how. At 6:30 my mood was Hey, this works and I like it.

That’s how I use reverse outlining to retrieve disorganized drafts, which seem to happen easily when writing on a computer, because it’s so easy to insert new ideas into the middles of paragraphs.

The key for me is reformatting the essay with a wide left margin, and then working with that.  Usually I shrink the size of the type to 9 or 10 points, which keeps the proportions of the new page the same as the original.  In the image below, you see the two outlines I did one right after the other. (Click the arrow to see the second page.)  The image is sketchy, but you should get the idea.

This alteration of the layout and sketching in the left-hand margin helped me see the unbalanced structure of the actual paper. I saw right away how to balance it. The process took 75 minutes and it redeemed what had felt like a piece of garbage when I started.

So you have a new tool to try as a writer–the reverse outline.

reverse outline with clear left margin

John G. Maguire
28 Sprague Ave
Chelmsford,MA 01824