A couple of weeks ago, the writer Aaron Hamburger had a terrific blog post in The New York Times about how he uses outlines as an evaluative tool once he’s got a full draft in hand: to assess the balance of a story, to find its dead places, and to figure out what’s missing. How wonderful a reverse outline is! It gives a writer freedom to lay down a draft with an abandon that guarantees the story has liveliness. Have faith. You’ll be able to slice and dice later; that outline you’ll do after the first draft is your guarantee.

And a reader of any story—published or not—can use the same outlining technique to figure out an author’s intentions. We did this in class last week with a story of Tobias Wolff’s called The Deep Kiss, and it allowed us to see how sneaky and purposeful Wolff had been in building the story’s thematic truth. The structure that created the emotional punch was visible; in a regular read, one felt the punch, but only by outlining could one see the careful set-up.  

A number of students have come to me recently with worries about work in progress. They’re so bogged down by the feeling that they’re not writing well enough that they can’t get another word out. They’re taking the first draft too seriously. The words feel permanent, unerasable. I tell them I like to throw in characters drinking coffee when I get stuck. It’s a placeholder note to myself: fix THIS in rewrite. I prefer to keep the energy going rather than stop to figure out the particular gesture I’ll use once I begin to examine the draft. I find myself saying the same thing over and over again to students. “Get a draft written! Stop thinking! Later you can figure out what you’ve done!” In other words, first drafts are slob drafts. Make a big, sloppy mess that first time out—swim the length of the pool, splashing as much as you can—and once you’re done, you can make the reverse outline your best new editorial friend.