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Writing Tip: Organizing a Writing Mess

June 20, 2013

From Chaos to Order:

The Why and How of Organizing a Text

By: Allie Faulhaber, with Consultant Contributions


It’s time to write another paper, and you’re prepared: You chose the topic, developed an original argument, and completed the research. But how are you going to organize all that information you’ve gathered to support your thesis? Since grade school, you’ve been taught to start with an introduction, follow it with the body paragraphs, and finish with a conclusion, but how do you organize those body paragraphs? How do you organize any paragraph, for that matter? Just like a bedroom or a computer desktop, a well-organized text is easier to navigate and, therefore, easier to understand for your intended audience. You’ve put in all this work to prepare yourself to write, and now, you don’t want it to all go to waste just because you don’t take the time to develop a strong organizational strategy.

When it comes to organizing a piece of writing, there are a few different approaches and objectives to consider. First, think about the overall structure of the paper: You absolutely need an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Second, think about how to present the information you have: What information will you put in each of your paragraphs, and how will you organize them? Is it more important to think chronologically, thematically, spatially, etc.?

The introduction is meant to be the blueprint for the rest of your paper. What you are writing about, why it’s important, and how you are going to prove and back it up should all be in the introduction? With an effective introduction, writing the rest of the paper is just filling in the blanks of what you’ve already outlined. The body paragraphs should all refer back to the introduction and help support your thesis.

As you start writing your body paragraphs, think about what your audience needs to know first for the rest of the paper to make sense. Is there any history or background information that is crucial to audience understanding that needs to be put first? Are there crucial definitions or ideas that your audience needs to know and understand before starting your argument and support? Once you’ve recognized what needs to come first, figure out a structure that works for your paper. Is it clearer to present your information chronologically, resulting in a timeline of sorts? Does your paper function better when it’s organized thematically, in which information is perhaps presented out of chronological order but with the main points all together? Whatever the organizational plan, it is vital that you do have one, and it must be the guiding force for your organization of the entire paper.

A useful practice to avoid frustration and scattered thoughts later is to start by outlining what you want to discuss in your paper. By trying out different styles of organization in your outline, you can recognize what works best for your assignment.

While organization depends largely on personal preference, focused paragraphs that directly support or advance your thesis are a must. At times, paragraphs can go on and on without a focus, leaving the audience more than a little confused. A simple way to fix this is to make sure each paragraph has a topic sentence, or mini thesis, that explains what a paragraph will discuss. When you start a new topic then you should also start a new paragraph. When you get off topic, you should first ask yourself if this new idea is relevant to your text’s focus. If it is, then start a new paragraph, but if it isn’t, then don’t start on an unrelated tangent. Save your idea; it may be a great focus for a later piece of writing.

Another super fun trick to avoid long, disorganized paragraphs after you’ve already written a draft of your paper is to read back through and summarize each paragraph. If it takes you more than one sentence to summarize a paragraph it’s probably too long.

You can also check a paragraph’s focus by reading the last sentence and then the first sentence, if they are intellectually very far away from each other or completely unrelated, then you need to find where in the paragraph shifts focus; you should then break your single paragraph into two developed and focused paragraphs or revise the writing that strays from the section’s focus and purpose.

These are certainly not the only strategies or tricks for improving organization within our writing. Here are what other consultants have to offer about organization:

Advice from University Writing Center Consultants

Cat: Assuming that we are talking about non-fiction, academic writing, I organize my stuff by what I deem most important to least important. In a thesis driven essay, after making my claim and giving it a skeletal amount of context – enough for the reader to understand its relevance – I start out the body of the paper with the point that I think is the most important or the most glaring example that supports my claim. Once that is established, the essay will begin to “organize itself” in a sense as that first point will give me clues as to the most logical second point.

For clients, I take them through this same process. What I see most often is a client that gives far too much situational, biographical, historical information at the beginning of the essay which, in turn, makes it difficult for the reader to remember what the actual point of the writing is supposed to be. When this happens, I will turn the essay upside down and grab a pencil/paper. I’ll ask the client to just tell me what the purpose of the writing is. Once the client begins speaking, I take notes, writing down EXACT words and phrases the writer uses in her explanation. Next, I ask the writer to tell me what the most obvious or compelling example she has to support the claim, and again I write down exact words and phrases that are spoken. We will do this for a while before turning the paper back over and comparing my dictation with the organization in the essay. Usually we can find all of the points the writer spoke out loud, but often those points will be living in strange places within the essay. This prompts a conversation about reorganizing based on stating a clear purpose and then aligning major points in order of significance and logical sequencing. Then the writer can begin to see how the historical, biographical, situational information can be scattered between major points instead of taking up huge chunks of space at the beginning.

So that’s what I do. It’s hit and miss. Much of this process’s success depends on how willing the writer is to re-seeing her writing and making (seemingly) sweeping revisions.

Emily: I work the best by compartmentalizing my writing.
1. Make an outline
2. Separate that outline into completely different topics. So that each topic has a separate identity
3. Open up a different word document for each topic so that it feels like I’m writing much shorter papers
4. Combine them all and write intro and conclusion.
5. Work on making it more cohesive
This really helps me with overwhelming papers

The students that I see typically have a hard time with conceptualizing the different ways available for organizing their paper. I try to work on opening their minds and talking about chronological order or organizing based on separate topics.

Kyle: Often times, especially if I’m writing an analysis paper, I don’t start at the beginning. Usually, I’ll write about two or three pages of stuff that I might theoretically use later just to develop my own ideas. There’s no real thesis here, nor is there any clear direction. Therefore, having a lack of organization can sometimes help you “lay out the pieces” of what you’re going to write so that you can actually organize later.

Therefore, I think clients just need to know that it’s okay to just write out a bunch of nonsense about what they’re going to write because it will help them develop their thoughts better. I might not even have a thesis until the second draft because it physically takes me that long to figure out what I’m doing.

What do you think?

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