Holly was staring at the page frowning, her brows knitted together in thought. That wasn’t a good sign. Then she smiled, which was an even worse sign. “You have some good analysis and interesting claims in this article, but there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the way you present your points. I’m sorry, but it looks like you’re going to have to rewrite the whole thing.”
I had asked for an honest opinion, all right. I mean, what are grad school friends for? But rewrite thirty-five pages before the journal’s deadline? That was crazy talk.
With the submission deadline looming, I asked her to read my article again a few days later. After about twenty minutes, she tossed the draft on the desk. In a tone of mock irritation, she said, “So, you definitely took my advice. The argument is completely different, and much more focused. The question I have is, how did you manage to rewrite the whole thing in a week and still teach, work, sleep…?”
This time, I was the one smiling. “Actually, it only took about three hours. I hardly rewrote any of the paragraphs at all.”
She raised her eyebrows. “You must be delirious from sleep deprivation.”
It was true. My article had gone from a jumbled mess of points to a cogent argument in a few hours. I did it using a simple technique that any writer can employ. It’s called the “says and does” technique, and it can help you get a handle on even the most out-of-control pieces.
“Says and Does” is based on a concept called reverse outlining. We’re all taught in school to write an outline first and then write the piece based on that outline. Of course, many of us would rather stick bamboo stalks into bodily crevices than sit down and construct a formal outline. This outlineaphobia leads to all sorts of poorly constructed writing, from tangents that take the paper hostage to repetitive paragraphs that send the reader in circles.
In a reverse outline, you construct the outline after you have written the piece. I do not mean that you fill in an outline after a paper is finished because your English teacher requires it. A reverse outline takes place between drafting and revision. To use this technique, you simply write a statement that summarizes each paragraph’s main point. Then, you scrutinize the summary statements to evaluate the draft’s structure. The summary statements are immensely helpful because they give you a clear snapshot of the paper’s current state, not the state you wish it were in.
You can learn many useful things from a reverse outline, such as:
- Whether your paragraphs are in the most effective order
- Whether your main points are developed and supported well enough
- Whether any information in the draft doesn’t fit your purpose or thesis
- Whether all of your paragraphs clearly relate to your main point
- Whether some of your paragraphs are redundant
- Whether your paragraphs’ topics are clear and easy to summarize
Once you see that some of the piece’s paragraphs are not in the best places, you can shift them around. Put all paragraphs that deal with a similar point together, cutting or condensing any that repeat points other paragraphs make. Review topic sentences and wrap-up sentences to see if they need to be revised (although I am always shocked to discover that many of the paragraphs fit into their new places easily, as though they had always been there). If an important point seems to have few paragraphs compared to other points, then add some more material to balance it out. If a point doesn’t seem to fit, either add more material to make it fit or cut it.
The “says and does” technique takes reverse outlining one step further, providing even more benefits to the writer. Instead of writing one summary sentence for each paragraph, you write two: one statement covers what the paragraph “says,” while the other covers what the paragraph “does.”
The “says” statement summarizes the paragraph’s main point. The statement is focused on content.
The “does” statement describes how the paragraph works in the context of the argument. This statement is focused on function.
I find it particularly useful to have a list of good “does” verbs at my disposal when I employ “says and does.” Here is a partial list:
- Expands on previous paragraph’s point
- Provides evidence to support point A, B, C…
- Provides background information
- Provides a transition
- Presents a counterargument
- Rebuts a counterargument
- Lists reasons
- Lists steps in a process
What’s great about the “says and does” technique is that it removes the need to scrutinize your draft to determine the structure. Traditional reverse outlining only covers the paragraphs’ content, which means that you must figure out how the pieces are working together after you have finished the outline. In “says and does,” this step is built into the “does” statement.
The “does” statement helps you to see what is out of place better than the “says” statement alone. For example you may love the two pages of wry description comparing Lord Byron to your Uncle Ernie. You may giggle at your own cleverness every time you think about it. If that is the case, statements that summarize the main point of the paragraphs will not cause you to question the comparison’s necessity. A “does” statement, however, will show that the comparison’s length is disproportionate to its relevance. Faced with the does statement, you would likely conclude that it would be better to save this particular bit of wit for Uncle Ernie’s birthday card. And your writing would be better for it.
As this post’s opening story shows, the “says and does” technique has helped me improve drafts quickly and dramatically. If you’ve never tried reverse outlining, I sincerely hope you do. If you are a reverse outlining fan, I hope you’ll try the “says and does” upgrade. Let everyone at Writing Power know how it goes!
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