University Learning Center

Structure & Organization

Organizing Your Thoughts and Ideas

So, you know what you want to say, but how do you say it? After reading through a selected text, understanding your observations can be frustrating at times. You might find yourself with a handful of ideas, trying to decide which ones are worth writing about.

To succeed, you'll need to strip down each idea and find a workable structure that fits the guidelines for your assignment. Unfortunately there isn't one universal formula to help structure every paper you write, but the following steps will help you think about different approaches.

Understanding Your Argument Visually

A good thesis sentence will persuade you in a specific direction. After composing your thesis sentence, reread it a few times. What is it trying to say? Which direction does it lead your paper?

Although your thesis acts as a springboard, you'll still need to invent a plan for organizing your main points and resources. Sometimes creating a diagram of your argument will help you understand and arrange your thoughts visually, offering another possibility to achieve the best written work possible.

A strong diagram will display all of your ideas and main points. Start with a blank page and write down your thesis statement, usually in the middle, since a thesis statement is the center of attention. Now, surrounding the thesis, jot down all main points you're interested in exploring. Under each main point, draw an arrow to a designated space where you'll also write any observations, research, evidence, etc. Soon you'll notice a lot of words on the page; this is normal. Drawing arrows, circles, bullet points, and using different colored pens and pencils are the best way to ensure that none of your information gets lost; assign a color to each main point, and so on.

Writing is a process, and diagrams provide you with tools that make approaching this process more controlled and ultimately generate your best writing. A simple outline, which typically comes first in the writing process, might not show all of your argument's potential. Lining up your main points in a visual medium before creating a traditional outline will help you discover certain aspects of your essay and form a more cohesive argument.

Outlining Your Argument

Completing your diagram brings you one step closer to discovering your paper's structure. Now, you're ready to make an outline. The goal for a successful outline is to organize your argument into a structure that will determine the order of points for your essay.

This is a selective process; choosing one option will often eliminate others. A successful outline contains all of your choices, strung together in their correct order, all working together holistically to support your thesis statement.

Drafting an outline is like solving a crossword puzzle; there is only one true order in which all the components (in this analogy, letters) spell out the correct solution. Think of what would happen if you plugged in the right amount of letters, but in the wrong order-your answer wouldn't make sense. An essay outline functions the same way; every paragraph occupies a certain space for a specific reason. Keep working on your outline until your order is indisputable.

Question your choices. A good outline often takes two or three drafts. The first choice is not necessarily the most effective. Good writing is like sculpting; a few rough edges reveal a statue's flaws. Chipping away in some places, adding support in others ensures that you're approaching your argument from every possible angle. If you're positive that your outline works, ask yourself why. If you can't determine an answer, keep sculpting until you're able to confidently answer the following questions:

  • Is the direction of my outline controlled by my thesis statement?
  • Are there any irrelevant points that don't apply to my argument?
  • Are my points in the correct order? What happens if I switch a few?
  • Is my outline coherent?
  • Are there moments where my argument looses steam?
  • How does my thesis hold up against my argument's transitions and subcategories?
  • Do I use enough evidence for each point?
  • Can I expand any of these points? Have I covered everything?
  • In the end, does my outline reveal a complete, insightful argument?

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Strategies for Selecting the Right Mode

Although there is not a universal formula for structuring all papers, hopefully you've used the above tools and found a structure for your paper. So what's next? The answer: selecting a model for your essay, a mode of discourse. The following are different ways you might arrange your information.

  • Narration: telling a story, utilizing the "I" voice.
  • Description: focus on the senses-sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.
  • Process: describes a series of steps.
  • Definition: puts emphasis on certain words, 'diction,' or specific ideas.
  • Division and Classification: place your ideas, objects, or events into categories.
  • Compare and Contrast: discuss the similarities and differences between topics.
  • Analogy: Draw comparisons between two topics that under general circumstances appear unrelated.
  • Cause and Effect: how one event influences another.

While all of these modes are useful, the one you choose depends on:

  • What does the assignment call for? Your teacher might select one of these modes for you. He/She might ask you to describe a process, or compare and contrast two texts.
  • If the choice is up to you, go over the list of modes again and choose one that best serves your outline.

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Constructing Paragraphs

Before you move on to paragraphs, make sure you've already tackled the following:

  • A thesis statement
  • A visual diagram
  • An outline
  • Selected a mode.

Now it's time to compose your paragraphs. This step is when the actual drafting begins.

Think of you essay as a machine; paragraphs are the parts that make this machine function properly and serve its purpose. We all know what happens when a few screws are missing. The machine won't hold together properly and do its job. Let's consider a baby crib, for example. Would you leave a few screws or pieces aside during the assembly process? Of course not. The cradle will fall.

What is a paragraph?

A single part of the machine. One unit of your essay. Readers will expect you to introduce one point in a single paragraph, followed by evidence and research that supports that particular point. By not following this approach, if you try to cover three or four different points in one paragraph, you'll confuse, even frustrate the reader, and your argument will fall flat, become lost. In most cases, the reader will not finish your essay.

What's a paragraph's role?

Think about it this way: your reader is developing a relationship with your paper (they are taking the time to read it). So, the reader will need the makings of a strong relationship: support, strength, consideration, clear communication, much like what we expect from people in our lives.

  • Support: Make sure each paragraph supports your thesis, makes reference and provides commentary about the thesis. Support means covering the entire spectrum of what needs to be said in each paragraph. Don't leave out anything important.
  • Strength: An exceptional paragraph does not contain repetitive language, irrelevant resources or claims. But it's also not thin and never leaves out any key facts. Exceptional paragraphs show obvious signs of development, that you gave each one a good work-out before showing it off.
  • Consideration: One paragraph feeds the next. They all feed each other. This is why information needs to be contained. Think of five paragraphs in the same essay as five houses on the same street, and at each house the occupants are having five
  • separate types of fish for dinner. Granted, it's all fish (your topic), but would you just waltz into your neighbors' houses, unannounced, and begin eating off their plates? Of course not. Paragraphs are the same way. Each paragraph needs to be considerate of the other, even if each one discusses some aspect of the same idea.
  • Clear Communication: Friendships can fall apart when two people aren't communicating. If you have 5 paragraphs in your essay, essentially you have 5 friends that are all telling sections of the same story. If one friend slips up, he/she can steer the rest off track. Be aware of what each paragraph communicates.

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Topic Sentences

All papers need a thesis statement that lends itself to the paper holistically, but with paragraphs, each one requires a topic sentence, one that asserts and controls a specific aspect of the main idea. Without a topic sentence in each paragraph, readers won't know what aspect of the paper you're discussing.

Topic sentences play the most important role in pumping life into a paragraph-it's the heart that keeps a paragraph going.

Make sure, for each paragraph, your topic sentence covers or refers to one idea only. Don't get ahead of yourself. If your topic sentence attempts to cover too much, two or three ideas, perhaps consider taking those three ideas and making three paragraphs (one for each).

Are you furthering your argument with your topic sentence? What purpose does it serve? If you can't answer these questions, your topic sentence isn't working.

What is the relationship between your paragraph's topic sentence and your paper's thesis statement? Are they closely related? If not, go back and consider what you can do to make a connection.

What is the relationship of the paragraphs above and below? Make sure you haven't left out any steps or key points before you move onto the next paragraph. Hopefully this is something that you tackled in your outline, but sometimes, once we commit ourselves to paper and begin writing a draft, we discover areas a diagram or outline never revealed.

Do you start each paragraph with a topic sentence? 90% of the time: yes. Beginning with your topic sentence sets up the reader for what the rest of the paragraph is about. The reader expects this. The other 10% of the time, for example, you have information that needs to precede your topic sentence. In this case, a topic sentence may come in the middle or even the end of a paragraph.

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-- Written by Tom Kunz