Is Your Short Attention Span Showing?: Using a Reverse Outline (Writer's Workshop #5) -->

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Is Your Short Attention Span Showing?: Using a Reverse Outline (Writer's Workshop #5)


Amber Cook
By Amber Cook, Senior Writing Specialist and Faculty Liaison

I’m going to date myself here. When I was pursuing my degrees, there was no Facebook. My computer did not have Internet access; in fact, I used my university’s computer lab because I didn’t have my own machine. As you can imagine (and many of you may know from your own experience), this scenario made research much more difficult and tedious, but it came with an upside: my ability to concentrate was first-class. The only thing on my screen was my document. There were no accessible means of procrastination, so I just wrote, and my writing had a cohesion that reflected my focus.

Now flash to the present. As I wrote the first paragraph of this blog post, I wandered away from my Word document three times: to check e-mail, respond to an IM, and find the Lumineers station on Spotify. I also fought against my now-innate urge to write in the short, pithy form of a status update or a text. In short, writing longer-form work is harder than it used to be, as it likely is for many of you. For adults returning to school after writing primarily in chunks of 50 words or less, the task of writing a cohesive multi-page paper can be a challenge. The strategies for this type of composition are different, and the longer attention span it requires is often a little-exercised muscle. 

Unsure whether cohesion is a problem in your writing? I have a test for you. Grab your most recent, completed piece of writing. Go ahead. I’ll send a quick text while I wait. You’re back? OK, here goes.

What you’re going to do is a process called reverse outlining. You might find it helpful to print out your paper for this exercise, or you can use track changes or alter your font color. Here are the steps:
  • Highlight your thesis statement, which should appear toward the end of your introduction. If you can’t easily identify it, be sure to watch our webinar on writing strong thesis statements.
  • Read each paragraph in your paper, and jot down two notes:
    • In the left margin, write the main idea/topic of that paragraph. You should be able to do this in fewer than 10 words. If you’ve organized your paragraphs well, you will be able to get this information quickly from each paragraph’s topic sentence.
    • In the right margin, write down a brief description of how this paragraph advances the argument you make in your thesis statement. In other words, how does this paragraph contribute to your paper’s overall point?

Once you’ve performed these steps, take a look at your margin notes. In your left margin, is the flow of topics logical? Do you spot any “drift,” where you started out moving in one direction but then wandered to a new focus without realizing it? Do any of the paragraphs not seem to belong? Are there paragraphs that could be rearranged so that the topics are grouped more logically? For instance, you might want to move from the broadest idea to the most focused, or keep paragraphs that cover similar topics close together.

In the right margin, you should see a logical arrangement of support for your thesis statement. Did you have trouble identifying how certain paragraphs supported the thesis? Do any of the pieces of evidence contradict each other, and if so, have you explained the contradiction adequately in your text? Would the evidence that appears in the right margin convince a reader of the value of your argument, or could you use more support? Do all of the pieces of evidence relate to the thesis, or have some paragraphs drifted into a different argument or facet of the argument?

As you use the questions above to analyze your paper, you should be able to identify any trouble spots in terms of argument, organization, and cohesion. If your thesis was easily identifiable and your left and right margins logically arranged, then congratulations! You have successfully resisted the lure of the short attention span. If you are like the rest of us, though, this exercise will be helpful in future paper revisions. Happy writing!


  1. Hello Writing Center Support,

    I am new to The Writing Center services. I scheduled my first ever writing center appointment to obtain a review of my proposal regarding APA format. January 4 of next year is more than the 48 hours away. What did I do wrong? How can I take advantage of the “within 48 hours” access of writing help?

    Thank you,

    1. Hello there!

      The 48-hour turnaround time applies to the time between your scheduled appointment and when you receive feedback. You've made the appointment for January 4, so you'll get a response from tutors on January 4 or 5 (via email). I hope that helps clear up the confusion! You can read more about Tutoring services on our website:

  2. Thank you for the excellent article. I appreciate the information for identifying and correcting "the drift". Now, where was I...?