A reverse outline more or less does what it says in the packet; you go through the piece you have written - whether it's a mystery novel or a PhD thesis - and write down happens at each step. I've been doing mine paragraph by paragraph, each 300 words or so boiled down to a few handwritten lines (I have been delighting in using multiple fountain pens with different coloured inks, after months of tapping away at my keyboard).
Isn't this a bit surplus to requirements, though, if you wrote and followed an outline in the first place? Surprisingly not. I am somewhat addicted to super-detailed outlines, and usually have around 3-4,000 words of outline per 12,000 word chapter. Even then, however, what you find yourself saying or indeed wanting to say changes and develops as you write; the beast as written is quite different from the beast as planned.
I have found it to be an incredibly satisfying activity. I printed off all five chapters and smelt the ink and felt the weight of the paper for the first time, which felt like a victory all of its own. And then, for the first time, I read those chapters, originally written out of order, one after another. Tracing the skeleton of each one made me think differently about them; should that paragraph be there? Is it necessary at all? That argument makes sense, yes - but could I make it even easier for the reader to follow?
Perhaps somewhat perversely, I found the process the most satisfying when it came to looking at the chapter that needs the most work done to it. My 'fourth chapter' was in fact the first I ever wrote, and this was quite some time ago. It's a strange experience to be reading my thoughts on this topic as they were fifteen months ago, and to see just the unformed inklings of some of the conclusions and analyses that I have reached after an extra year of thought and research.
Compared to my more recent ones, this chapter is a mess. Quote tumbles after quote without any analysis! I used five different terms to refer to the same vague idea that I hadn't quite pinned down at that point. It has too many sections, and the logic behind their organisation is a mystery even to me. But it contains these juicy sources which I'd almost forgotten about, that suddenly, in light of the chapters I have since written, take on all of this extra and exciting significance. Most of the words I need are there - combined with more recent insights, the only possible direction for this chapter is up. I'm looking forward to crafting something new and improved out of my novitiate chapter.
So, for the time being I am really enjoying this more large-scale editing work, before I get to the more fiddly fine-tuning. Have other people had this experience? Do you reverse outline? What else do you do to help you think about how the thesis (or any other large-scale piece of writing) works as a whole? Please share your thoughts in the comments!