Advanced Dissertation Revision Techniques

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Reverse Outlining and Cardifying

You’ve just written a draft of an article or a chapter of your dissertation. Or maybe you’ve just written a section. But you’re not really sure that you like how it’s organized. Maybe your argument doesn’t seem clear, even to you. 

You try re-reading what you’ve written, but it’s too long and overwhelming for you to make sense of it. And you don’t feel it’s ready to show to a reader, because you know there’s something more you need to do. 

You just don’t know what that is.

What should you do now?

That’s where “advanced academic techniques” come in.

The members of my current class, the “30-Day Writing Club,” have generated a wealth of invaluable techniques, both in their daily logs, and in the message board. There are long threads with such subject lines as “The craft of writing,” “How to multi-task,” “How do you organize your day?” and “Tips on writing the discussion section.”

Here are a few of the best ideas that have come from this and previous classes, to help you with that confusing draft you’ve written.  These techniques will help you with revising that dissertation chapter or article.

Reverse Outlining

The name of this technique may have been coined in one of my classes, or it may have existed before. In either case, it’s a good way to start when you’re starting to revise your work.

Whether or not you had an outline to begin with, you may have gone astray as you wrote. Reverse outlining uses the idea of “reverse engineering,” where you take something apart to see how it was created in the first place. In reverse outlining, you outline what you’ve already written.

In the process you’ll start to realize where you’ve gone wrong in the organization of your work, where you haven’t made your point adequately, where it’s confusing, or not coherent.

This is particularly valuable if you have done a lot of free writing and haven’t worked from an outline.

One person numbers all her paragraphs and writes a brief summary next to each one. She then rearranges the paragraphs to make it read better, and corrects by adding transitions and deleting redundancies.



Sophia Isako Wong, a tenure-track professor in philosophy, has given me permission to share one of her revising techniques, something she calls “Cardifying.” It is related to the idea of reverse outlining. Here is what she wrote:

Gina asked me to explain “cardifying” – it’s a word I made up recently, but probably others have used similar techniques before. I use index cards to represent the main points of a paper, writing the thesis statement of a paragraph or section in colorful markers for fun.

Usually I start by writing the main points of a paper I’m revising on index cards, one for each point . . . First I spread them on the table or on the bed and move them around until they make sense. Then I pin them to a bulletin board, leaving blank spaces between cards that are not yet connected.

This helps me think about how gaps in the argument need to be filled in. Sometimes I’ll put a “placeholder” card that says “example needed here” or “cite source here” or “transition needed here”, and replace it later when I’ve tracked down or written what needs to be there.


Sophia intends to use this technique next in order to help her with the complicated process of positioning her paper as a response to someone else’s paper.

On a more practical note, Sophia explains,

The nice thing about using a cork bulletin board (rather than the wall or floor) is that I can slide it away between the dresser and the wall when the work session is done, so I don’t end up staring at it during my free time. But when I’m ready to work again I just pull it out and there’s all the work I did last time.

I hope others will try “Cardifying” and let me know how to refine it!


So the next time you’re staring hopelessly at a confusing draft, and wondering how to go about revising your dissertation chapter or article, try one of these “advanced academic techniques,” and let me know how it works!

There are many, many more ideas that class members are continuing to share with each other (the Club is at its halfway point.) Join us next time and get in on the fun!


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