The first thing to look at when you're organizing your paper is the main idea, often called a thesis statement. Put yourself in the reader's place. Imagine how you would expect to see the central idea developed. Next, look at the notes you've taken. If you used your thesis statement as a guide in gathering information, you should see a pattern.
Look at the following thesis statement.
Imposing sanctions on China would be a mistake because it would hurt the American economy, because sanctions are notoriously unsuccessful as a way to force change, and because the United States should not interfere in the internal policies of other countries.
This statement suggests that the paper will be divided into three main parts; it even indicates an order for where those sections will appear in the paper. When you go through your notes, decide where each note logically fits. For example, statistics about U.S. clothing manufacturers' increasing use of Chinese labor would fit into section one, and a note about the failure of sanctions in the Middle East would fit into section two.
Your thesis statement might not be this precise; or the kind of essay you're writing might not lend itself to such an obvious division. But from the moment you select a topic and decide on a thesis, you should be thinking about ways to develop it. This thinking leads to your organizing principle.
Let's review some common ways to organize writing. After you begin to write, you may change your mind because the process of writing often generates new ideas or suggests a different direction. Be flexible.
Spatial or chronological organization
Some topics lend themselves to organization based on
space or time. A descriptive essay might work well if you begin with a distant view and move in closer. First, describe how an old wooden barn looks from the road, for example; then describe what you see when you stand directly in front of the barn. Next, describe the view (and the smells and sounds) when standing inside the barn door, and complete your description with what you see when you climb the ladder into the loft.
In the narration of an event and in some kinds of technical writing—describing a process, for example—you write about events in the order they occur. If you were writing about making a ceramic vase, you could divide the process into three stages: selecting and preparing the clay, forming and refining the shape of the vase on the potter's wheel, and glazing the piece and firing it in a kiln. The detailed steps in making the vase could then be organized sequentially (chronologically) in these sections.
Dividing a subject into categories
Just as you can divide a process into stages, you can divide a subject into
categories. As you look over your notes, use your thesis statement as a guide and see if logical groupings emerge. Look at the following topic and thesis statement from a fictional student.
TOPIC Write a paper addressing an environmental concern and suggesting ideas for a solution.
THESIS The United States is losing its forests, and the solution is everyone's responsibility.
Note that the second half of this thesis statement is weak:
the solution is everyone's responsibility is a vague assertion.
In looking over his research notes, the student quickly identifies the information that relates to the first part of the thesis statement (
Less than 10 percent of U.S. old‐growth forests remain, U.S. consumption of wood is up 30 percent since 1930, and so on). However, when he looks at the rest of his notes, he finds he has everything from
Logging bans have been effective in many areas to
Don't use disposable diapers to
Agricultural waste can be effectively processed to make building materials that provide excellent insulation.
At this point he decides to create categories. He finds that many notes are related to simple, everyday actions that can help reduce wood and paper consumption (
using cloth diapers instead of disposable diapers, sending email instead of paper memos, using cloth shopping bags instead of paper or plastic bags, recycling newspapers, and so on). Other information he has found in his research covers alternatives for wood, such as
agricultural waste, engineered wood manufactured by the forest‐products industry, the use of steel studs in construction rather than wooden ones, a method of wall forming called “rammed earth construction,” and so on. Then he notices that several notes relate to government actions—such as
logging bans, wilderness designations, and
Forest Service reforms.
He decides to use three general classifications as a principle of organization:
Alternatives to wood
He may decide to change the order of the classifications when he writes his paper, but for now he has a principle of organization.
If some notes don't fit into these classifications, this student may want to add another category, or add some subsections. For example, if several notes deal with actions by major conservation groups, he may want to add a division under
Conservation group activities. Or, if he finds information relating to disadvantages of wood alternatives, he may add some subtopics under B; for example,
price, stability, public perception.
Dividing material into categories is one of the most basic forms of organization. Make sure the categories are appropriate to the purpose of your paper and that you have sufficient information under each one. Remember that you will have more information and notes from your research than will relate directly to your thesis. Just because you discovered some interesting data during your research doesn't mean you must include this information in your paper.
Organizing essays of comparison
Sometimes students have problems comparing and contrasting two topics. After gathering information, they fail to focus on the similarities and differences. When your topic involves comparison, you can organize in either of two ways.
First, you can discuss each subject separately, and then include a section in which you draw comparisons and contrasts between the two. With this organization, if you were comparing and contrasting two poems, you would write first about one—covering, for example, theme, language, images, tone, and rhyme scheme—and then you would write about the other, covering the same areas. In a third section, you would make a series of statements comparing and contrasting major aspects of the two poems. If you use this method to organize a comparison essay, make sure the separate discussions of the poems are parallel. That is, for the second poem, address points in the same order you used for the first poem. In the third section of the paper, avoid simply repeating what you said in sections one and two.
A second way of organizing requires you to decide first which aspects of the poems you want to compare and contrast (theme, language, imagery, tone, and so on) and then to structure your essay according to these elements. For example, if you begin with theme, you state the themes of both poems and compare them. Next, you compare the language of the two poems, then the imagery, then the tone, and so on.
When you use the second type of organization, you focus on similarities and differences. Because of this you are less likely to include material that isn't pertinent, and you avoid repetition by eliminating a separate compare‐and‐contrast section.
These two types of organization can be combined. For example, you may want to discuss each poem's theme separately, and then move into a point‐by‐point comparison of the other aspects of the poem (language, imagery, tone, and so on).
Inductive and deductive patterns of organization
In a logical argument, the pattern in which you present specific evidence and then draw a general conclusion is called
inductive. This term can also be used to describe a method of approaching the material, particularly in a persuasive essay or one presenting an argument. You are using this method in an essay even when you state the general conclusion
first and present supporting evidence in successive paragraphs. In most essays, it's common to begin with the general conclusion as a thesis statement.
EVIDENCE The student action committee failed to achieve a quorum in all six of its last meetings.
During the past year, the student action committee has proposed four plans for changing the grievance procedure and has been unable to adopt any of them.
According to last month's poll in the student newspaper, 85 percent of the respondents had not heard of the student action committee.
Two openings on the committee have remained unfilled for eight months because no one has applied for membership.
CONCLUSION The student action committee is an ineffective voice for students at this university. [A general conclusion is drawn from specific evidence or examples. Note: In an essay, this would be a thesis statement.]
Another type of organization borrowed from logical argument is called
deductive. With this pattern, you begin with a generalization and then apply it to specific instances. In a timed writing, you might be given a general statement such as
It's better to be safe than sorry or
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and then asked to agree or disagree, providing examples that support your view.
With such essays, you aren't proving or disproving the truth of a statement, but offering an opinion and supporting it with examples. If you begin with a generalization such as
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, for example, you could cite instances such as different standards for human beauty in different cultures, or different views of beauty in architecture from era to era. You could also use examples from your own experience, such as your sister's fascination with desert landscapes in contrast to your boredom with them.
Connecting paragraphs in an essay
Your essay should move smoothly from paragraph to paragraph, each point growing out of the preceding one. If you are shifting directions or moving to a different point, prepare your reader with a transition. Use transitional phrases to guide the reader through your paper:
additionally, as a result, generally speaking, next, in contrast, on the other hand, similarly, at the same time, later, or
in conclusion. Achieving continuity throughout the essay is similar to achieving continuity in a paragraph.