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IN A NEW PIECE at The New York Times, Matador staff writer Aaron Hamburger discusses how he stopped using traditional outlines in his writing process and evolved a system of outlining “in reverse” — that is, after the initial piece was written:

Over the course of my 17-year writing career, I began to give up on outlining — that is, before I write. I’ve come to prefer a more organic approach to creation, first laying out my raw material on the page, then searching for possible patterns that might emerge. But now, after I’ve completed a first draft, I compose an outline. I’ve found that this is the surest way to make sense of the work. I originally thought I was a genius for having invented reverse outlining, but I’ve since learned that many writers do this in some form or another.

Photo: joguldi via Compfight cc

Aaron likens the process to simple math, whereby, “staring at my stories for what seemed like the hundredth time, I decided to analyze them scene by scene, taking note of how many pages each one lasted, as well as how much of the piece was devoted to action and different characters.”

At the same time he admits that “writing is not math and never should be,” and as with every creative tool, the danger of using it lies in its abuse. Please reference the complete article for full explanations on how he reverse outlined his novel, and more on his creative process.

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About The Author

David Miller

David Miller is Senior Editor of Matador (winner of 2010 and 2011 Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism) and Director of Curricula at MatadorU. Follow him @dahveed_miller.

  • Karen McCann

    I love the reverse outline concept and have used it many times in my career as a writer, most recently with my new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. I sat down and wrote the first draft in a frenzy of creative impulse, then spent a year revising it so that it had a coherent narrative thread. I’d never heard the process called a reverse outline; thanks for providing a name and a context for the process.

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