Writing Tips: Essay Organization
The most important part of any piece of writing is the introduction. It gets the reader's attention and is the determining factor in the reader's choice to continue reading; a dull, uninteresting, or poorly written introduction voids the rest of the piece, as it simply won't be read. The second most important part of any piece of writing is the conclusion. It sums up or concludes matters in a satisfying way, and, as it is the last of your writing the reader will read, it is your opportunity to make one strong final impression and leave your reader with something significant to think about.
The third most important part of any piece of writing is everything else, but that's beside the point.
The point is that it is important to think of your particular piece of writing as a structural entity and to understand that paying close attention to the organization of your work is just as important as paying close attention to the words with which you fill it. Writing with a careful eye toward, and a solid control of, your work's structure not only gives your writing the credibility a more lazily or haphazardly organized work would not be given, it also allows you to smoothly move your reader through your text; to isolate, highlight, or build up to your most important points; and to guide your reader toward your meanings. And that, combined with good, intelligent, insightful writing, is what creates successful essays and papers.
WAYS OF ORGANIZING ESSAYS AND PAPERS
The general shape of an essay shouldn't change too much from assignment to assignment: An introduction of some sort, a body, and a conclusion. Depending on your content and purpose, however, you may decide to set up the body of your paper any one of several different ways.
Where your thesis or main idea goes is also a consideration in establishing your persuasive structure. In what is generally referred to as a Support Structure, the paper develops from the central idea: An assertion, generalization, claim, or thesis is made early on in the paper and is then supported or backed up with the rest of the paper. On the other hand, when a writer uses what is called a Discovery Structure, the paper builds toward a generalization, thesis, or solution, moving from one point to the next until the readers have been led to the thesis or conclusion. A Pro-and-Con Structure (also called Exploratory) can be used with either a support or discovery structure. In a pro-and-con structure, the writer investigates the subject by considering its strengths and weaknesses, its advantages and disadvantages, its positives and negatives. Linking the various points carefully with transitions, the writer goes back and forth between one side of an issue and another, leading, through careful consideration of both sides, to a conclusion. This type of organization not only effectively presents all sides of an issue, it establishes credibility with the reader by showing that the writer is neither biased nor uninformed.
Here is a visual breakdown of how these types of Persuasive Structures are generally arranged:
How to Organize Using a Comparison and Contrast Structure
To compare two items or subjects is to draw attention to their similarities as well as their differences. To contrast is to narrow the scope, focusing only on ways the items are different. When presenting a Comparison and/or Contrast paper, there are two main ways of shaping your work. First, the two subjects may be treated one at a time, separately, Block style. For instance, a paper comparing two Southern presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, could begin with an introduction, then go into a section about Carter, broken down into several points about him, followed by a section highlighting several respective points about Clinton, and ending with a conclusion. Second, the two subjects may be treated together, as your paper proceeds in Point-to-Point style. Using the same example from above, a paper comparing Carter and Clinton could begin with an introduction, then go into a section about foreign policy decisions, one about military spending, and one about personal character, with both presidents discussed in each section. It may be helpful to see how these strategies lay out in outline form:
A. Foreign Policy
B. Military Spending
C. Personal Character
A. Foreign Policy
B. Military Spending
C. Personal Character
2. Foreign Policy
3. Military Spending
4. Personal Character
Perhaps you have a specific paper to write and a specific subject to write about, but you don't know which of these structures will work best for your particular assignment. Here's a handy list that breaks down some of the most common types of papers you may need to write and what organizational strategies might work best with them.
OUTLINING - BEFORE AND AFTER
Outlining has been taught for years as a necessary strategy for mapping out the organization of a piece of writing before it is written, though many writers today feel pre-draft outlines can be just as inhibiting or constricting as they can be helpful. Still, it's always a good idea to be organized, and if you allow yourself to break from the outline to go in a direction that might work better than your original idea, then the pre-draft outline can be a very useful tool in getting you started and shaping your paper. If your essay goes off in a slightly different direction than you originally planned, so be it. Many a great work has ended up as something wholly different than what the writer initially envisioned.
Oddly enough, though, it might be after you have written your first draft that outlining might prove most beneficial. Once you have a written draft, distance yourself from it and look at its organization. Jot down an outline as you notice the different sections of your essay. Perhaps you will surprise yourself when you see the tight and logical structure of your paper, how all the points and sections seem to be in the right place. But if the order of your paper is not logical, the post-draft outline will reveal it, giving you the opportunity to revise your structure and improve the paper's overall effectiveness. Post-draft outlining can also give you the opportunity to spot missing links, those places in your paper where you shift your focus from one idea or section to another without providing proper transitions to help smoothly guide your reader from one point to the next. By post-outlining your work, you can find the places where you need to fill in these often awkward black holes of writing.
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