Using Recursive Outlines for Writing

by | Mar 19, 2019

Writers of all levels, from high school on, are taught to use outlines to structure their projects. To encourage agility in our work, however, we can use outlines more flexibly. Incorporating recursive outlines into your writing practice can keep your writing on track while also making room for your ideas to evolve.

The value of outlining

Typically, we create outlines as part of the prewriting process, in between conducting research and starting a rough draft. Some writers also create reverse outlines after a draft is complete to ensure that the structure and flow of ideas will be clear to readers.

Outlines like these are undoubtedly useful. If we’re not sure exactly what a piece looks like, an outline can serve as a sketch that helps make sense of our ideas. If we’re hesitant to start drafting for whatever reason (imposter syndrome, writer’s block, etc.), creating an outline can be a workable intermediate step that reduces anxiety around facing the blank page. And certainly, if we’re prone to rambling or digressions, outlines can help keep us focused on the core of the project.

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The limits of static outlines

For scholars, novelists, memoirists, and others who undertake long, complicated, evolving projects, adhering too closely to an early outline can close off further lines of inquiry or new developments. Call this the “five-paragraph essay effect”: If you’ve worked with student writers, you’ve probably seen how comforting it can be to have a concrete structure in mind for a piece of writing. But both student writing and scaled-up work can suffer from the constraints of a fixed template.

Likewise, a reverse outline may come too late for real substantive revision. Academics are busy and often overworked, and waiting until the end of a draft to take stock often means there just isn’t time to address the issues you’ve identified. 

What are recursive outlines?

Recursive outlines are simply outlines you create repeatedly throughout the writing process, particularly during stages where outlines aren’t typically created, such as mid-draft. These outlines can take whatever form best suits your style, from a hastily-written section overview on a piece of scrap paper to a detailed digital file complete with citations.

Recursive outlines are especially helpful for academics for several reasons. First, our projects can take years to complete, and that’s too long to be beholden to a single vision of what the final product should look like.

Additionally, because of the seasonality of academic work, it’s easy to lose touch with a project during the semester and need to find a way back in when your schedule lightens up. The recursive outline is ideal for reacquainting yourself with your ideas and updating them as new research is published, you get feedback from your editor, new connections are made, or you rethink an early formulation.

And then of course there’s the plain truth that writing is tough. We can stall out on projects in big and small ways, from losing steam toward the end of a single writing session to losing internal motivation on the project as a whole because of external factors such as job contingency or life-work balance. When your writing has stalled, looking back at what you’ve already done can help you regain some traction.

How to use recursive outlines

If recursive outlines are new to you, one recommendation is simply to list the main topic and purpose of each paragraph of your draft so far, either in the margins of the document or in a research notebook or file. This gives you a good picture of what your draft is doing without getting into the details of the sentence level. Taking five to ten minutes to create a quick outline after you’ve been away from a draft or at the beginning of a sustained writing session can help situate you within the bigger picture of the project at hand.

Another good way to use a recursive outline is to revisit a single outline over the course of a period of drafting. Each time you revisit the outline, you can update it to reflect the changes you’ve made in the grind of actually putting your ideas into words. While it might be tempting to simply delete items that have changed and replace them with new material, it can also be useful to annotate the document instead, preserving the original while making the updates visible. You might write on top of the original outline in a different color, or use a “track changes” or commenting tool. The visual cue provided by the different colors or annotations shows progress without erasing earlier versions of your ideas.

This annotated outline then provides a record not just of what your piece is doing but how it has evolved over time. It allows you to be in conversation with yourself about your ideas, rather than only in conversation with the project.

One other tip for recursive outlining is to use your outlines to generate writing prompts. If the outline reveals something you’ve missed in your draft so far, or gestures toward a possible connection, take the time not just to make a note of this but to write your note in the form of an open-ended question or invitation to deeper consideration and feedback. The simple act of articulating the question can help you refine your thoughts and get you closer to a completed draft.

Finally, think capaciously about the forms outlines can take and the purposes they can serve. In addition to working as archives and idea generators, they can be indexes, concept maps, or hyperlinked guides to your growing draft. They can be routines or rituals, wordy or concise, playful or task-oriented. Ultimately, you can use recursive outlines for writing projects in ways that adapt to your changing needs and keep you from going astray while moving forward.

Nicole Cesare wearing a black blazer

About the author:

Nicole Cesare is a lecturer in writing arts at Rowan University and appreciates the way her teaching helps her rethink her own writing practice. She writes about African literature, higher education, and running. You can find her on Twitter at @NicoleCesare and on her website at

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