What is paragraph re-planning?

Also called ‘reverse outlining’


When you’ve finished a 30 to 40 page article or chapter, the chances are high that you do not really understand what you’ve written. At research level the argument content is normally complex and it never turns out as planned. During the writing process some points expand, others contract. Some ideas work, while others fizzle out. Some planned experiments or research avenues prove productive, and others dead ends. So each article and chapter takes on its own direction — often with the author only dimly aware of the deviations.

The core idea of paragraph re-planning is to start with your current full text, and then to resurface a paragraph-by-paragraph structure from that. When you have this, you can re-evaluate it and perhaps find an alternative structure for the text. (A similar idea is called ‘reverse outlining’ by Rachael Cayley, i.e. resurfacing an outline of what you’ve written, from what you’ve actually said). In my version of this idea, the stages are:

  1. Summarize each paragraph in one line. Go through your text, writing down all the headings and sub-headings exactly as they occur, and giving a one-line summary of each paragraph’s content. The summary must never exceed a line, must always be substantive, and must never be formal or vacuous. It must give an exact narrative precis of what each paragraph says and does, rather like a good tweet. Whenever you have a Figure or table, write down its title (in one line) also.
  2. Next number every paragraph summary in a single sequence (1, 2, 3, 4 etc), from beginning to end. A more techy approach is to write each paragraph summary (and each heading also) in large font on one Powerpoint slide. Go to the slide outline view and you have an overview of the current structure. In work with lots of charts and tables (like most of mine) you can just put a slide with an image or copy of the full exhibit at the point where it occurs in the paragraph sequence.
  3. Analyse this synoptic view of your text. You can now see how long each section is (count the number of paragraphs between headings); what the sequence of the arguments is; where any digressions or distractions occur; and how bitty or recursive the argument is. If your summaries are accurate and substantive in saying what each paragraph argues, then the repetitions, anomalies and other problems should spring out at you, along with cases where the same core point is being made in bits at several stages in the text.
  4. Define an alternative structure. Look hard at the paragraph topics and try to define a Plan B sequence. In disciplines where thematic structures are the norm, as in all the humanities and most social sciences still — there is never just ‘one best way’ to make an argument. In STEM subjects and the ‘hard’ social sciences, purely conventional argument structures are still commonly used(perhaps inherited from schooldays or former times). Yet even here, there are still key choices to be made. For instance, some authors discuss previous literature at length early on, usually focusing on methods, before detailing their own experiments, results and analysis — leaving only minimal space for discussion at the end. Others set a very swift article context, and get into their own work quickly. They reserve most consideration of the literature for an ‘opening out’ conclusion that explicitly reconciles this study’s results with other recent work, and focuses hard on explaining differences in findings.
  5. Allocate every paragraph of your text to the four or five new sections. Move the numbered paragraphs off your old Plan A so as to brigade then under the new headings. Try to create sections with an approximately equal number of paragraph summaries in each. If a section gets too long, split it. If a section gets under-nourished, merge it with a neighbor under a new heading. If you’ve gone the Powerpoint route the slide organizer lets you easily move the position of each paragraph (and exhibit) into the new sequence. Make sure too that there is a clear logic to the sequence of paragraphs within each section.
  6. Implement Plan B at the full-text level, by moving the full paragraphs around, roughly in the new sequence. Save a version of your article or chapter with a distinctive name Plan B name. Type in the new sub-headings at appropriate points, and then take each full text paragraph and move it (using cut-and paste) to its right place in your alternative sequence. Don’t worry at this stage about the linking between paragraphs. Just get them in approximately the right order, still with clashing border zones. Now print the new text.
  7. Revise text at each of the new paragraph joins in Plan B. Strike out all the old linking words that bound each paragraph to its precursor and successor in Plan A. Write new beginnings and ends of paragraphs that make Plan B work. Rephrase the topic sentences at the start, and the wrap sentences at the end of paragraphs. I usually scribble these out on my printout, but you could also do this fairly easily on screen. Now tighten up the links and make each sub-section cohere, so that it does one job well. Check the new sequence works at different levels.
  8. Now you have two versions of your article or chapter. Which are you going to go forward with — the old, or the new? We always make better decisions given well-specified, concrete alternatives like this. Compare this to the choice of Plan A or nothing — no wonder many authors here stick with what they have despite realizing it has weaknesses.

A final word — paragraph re-planning is not easy to do. It takes honesty and resolve to recognize what you’ve actually written (or ideas that you are sometimes still struggling to express). It takes a lot of courage to effectively criticize already joined-up text. And a lot of confidence and imagination is needed to genuinely conceive an alternative structure. I always find myself (and my advisees and occasionally colleagues) strongly reluctant to take the first steps to begin re-planning. But when we can summon up the nerve to do this exercise, the new plan works much better. People almost never go back to Plan A.

You can follow up these and related ideas in more detail see my book: Patrick Dunleavy, ‘Authoring a PhD’ (Palgrave, 2003) or the Kindle edition, where Chapter 6 ‘Developing as a Writer’ discusses re-planning.

Rachael Cayley’s wonderful blog, Explorations of Style, also has her version of a similar approach here.

And for new update materials see the LSE’s Impact blog and on Twitter @Write4Research

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