9 Organizing an Essay
There are many elements that must come together to create a good essay. The topic should be clear and interesting. The author’s voice should come through, but not be a distraction. There should be no errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, or capitalization. Organization is one of the most important elements of an essay that is often overlooked. An organized essay is clear, focused, logical and effective.
Organization makes it easier to understand the thesis. To illustrate, imagine putting together a bike. Having all of the necessary tools, parts, and directions will make the job easier to complete than if the parts are spread across the room and the tools are located all over the house. The same logic applies to writing an essay. When all the parts of an essay are in some sort of order, it is both easier for the writer to put the essay together and for the reader to understand the main ideas presented in the essay.
Strategy 1. Reverse Outlining
If your paper is about Huckleberry Finn, a working thesis might be: “In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain develops a contrast between life on the river and life on the shore.” However, you might feel uncertain if your paper really follows through on the thesis as promised.
This paper may benefit from reverse outlining. Your aim is to create an outline of what you’ve already written, as opposed to the kind of outline that you make before you begin to write. The reverse outline will help you evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of both your organization and your argument.
Read the draft and take notes
Read your draft over, and as you do so, make very brief notes in the margin about what each paragraph is trying to accomplish.
Outline the Draft
After you’ve read through the entire draft, transfer the brief notes to a fresh sheet of paper, listing them in the order in which they appear. The outline might look like this:
- Paragraph 1: Intro
- Paragraph 2: Background on Huck Finn
- Paragraph 3: River for Huck and Jim
- Paragraph 4: Shore and laws for Huck and Jim
- Paragraph 5: Shore and family, school
- Paragraph 6: River and freedom, democracy
- Paragraph 7: River and shore similarities
- Paragraph 8: Conclusion
Examine the Outline
Look for repetition and other organizational problems. In the reverse outline above, there’s a problem somewhere in Paragraphs 3-7, where the potential for repetition is high because you keep moving back and forth between river and shore.
Re-examine the Thesis, the Outline, and the Draft Together
Look closely at the outline and see how well it supports the argument in your thesis statement. You should be able to see which paragraphs need rewriting, reordering or rejecting. You may find some paragraphs are tangential or irrelevant or that some paragraphs have more than one idea and need to be separated.
Strategy 2. Talk It Out
If your paper is about President Roosevelt’s New Deal, and your working thesis is: “The New Deal was actually a conservative defense of American capitalism.” This strategy forces to explain your thinking to someone else.
Find a Friend, your T.A., your Professor, a relative, a Writing Center tutor, or any sympathetic and intelligent listener.
People are more accustomed to talking than writing, so it might be beneficial to explain your thinking out loud to someone before organizing the essay. Talking to someone about your ideas may also relieve pressure and anxiety about your topic.
Explain What Your Paper Is About
Pay attention to how you explain your argument verbally. It is likely that the order in which you present your ideas and evidence to your listener is a logical way to arrange them in your paper. Let’s say that you begin (as you did above) with the working thesis. As you continue to explain, you realize that even though your draft doesn’t mention “private enterprise” until the last two paragraphs, you begin to talk about it right away. This fact should tell you that you probably need to discuss private enterprise near the beginning.
You and your listener should keep track of the way you explain your paper. If you don’t, you probably won’t remember what you’ve talked about. Compare the structure of the argument in the notes to the structure of the draft you’ve written.
Get Your Listener to Ask Questions
As the writer, it is in your interest to receive constructive criticism so that your draft will become stronger. You want your listener to say things like, “Would you mind explaining that point about being both conservative and liberal again? I wasn’t sure I followed” or “What kind of economic principle is government relief? Do you consider it a good or bad thing?” Questions you can’t answer may signal an unnecessary tangent or an area needing further development in the draft. Questions you need to think about will probably make you realize that you need to explain more your paper. In short, you want to know if your listener fully understands you; if not, chances are your readers won’t, either.
Strategy 3. Paragraphs
Readers need paragraph breaks in order to organize their reading. Writers need paragraph breaks to organize their writing. A paragraph break indicates a change in focus, topic, specificity, point of view, or rhetorical strategy. The paragraph should have one main idea; the topic sentence expresses this idea. The paragraph should be organized either spatially, chronologically, or logically. The movement may be from general to specific, specific to general, or general to specific to general. All paragraphs must contain developed ideas: comparisons, examples, explanations, definitions, causes, effects, processes, or descriptions. There are several concluding strategies which may be combined or used singly, depending on the assignment’s length and purpose:
- a summary of the main points
- a hook and return to the introductory “attention-getter” to frame the essay
- a web conclusion which relates the topic to a larger context of a greater significance
- a proposal calling for action or further examination of the topic
- a question which provokes the reader
- a quote
- a vivid image or compelling narrative
Put Paragraphs into Sections
You should be able to group your paragraphs so that they make a particular point or argument that supports your thesis. If any paragraph, besides the introduction or conclusion, cannot fit into any section, you may have to ask yourself whether it belongs in the essay.
Re-examine each Section
Assuming you have more than one paragraph under each section, try to distinguish between them. Perhaps you have two arguments in favor of that can be distinguished from each other by author, logic, ethical principles invoked, etc. Write down the distinctions — they will help you formulate clear topic sentences.
Re-examine the Entire Argument
Which section do you want to appear first? Why? Which Second? Why? In what order should the paragraphs appear in each section? Look for an order that makes the strongest possible argument.