How to write: Organization

Organization is important.  Very important.  It’s closely related to focus, since your thesis statement also helps create and maintain your organization, and clues your readers into what you’re doing with your paper by giving them a road map to your points.

It also helps your focus: by staying organized, it’s easier to stay focused.

I usually focus hard on teaching organization and focus.  Each is fairly simple to understand, and there are only a few things to remember about each.  Organization carries two major pitfalls: keep similar points together, and keep your body paragraphs’ main points in the same order you have them in your thesis statement.

One of my standard assignments for my Freshman Composition I courses is an analysis paper.  They have to analyze whether something is a good or bad example of something else.  Because the example paper they have analyzes whether someone is making a good argument by using the criteria of good use of ethos (appealing to the audience through the author’s credibility), pathos (appeal through audience emotions), and logos (appeal through the use of facts, figures, and logic), many of my students do the same.  The article I discuss is a little complicated–the writer is very credible in the subject he’s writing about, and makes excellent use of the appeal to the audience’s emotions, but does a lousy job with using enough facts and figures to back up his argument.  So, that’s how my thesis statement reads:

William Raspberry uses ethos and pathos quite well in his essay “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”; however, his use of logos leaves a lot to be desired.

Unfortunately, many of them looked at the order of the rhetorical parts (ethos, pathos, logos), and didn’t see that I’d kept like with like: what Raspberry did well vs. what he didn’t.  That led to some problems.  Some of the students wrote about other arguments–and some of those other arguments didn’t do well, or did poorly with pathos.  And their thesis statements and body paragraphs had it splitting the paragraphs analyzing what the writer did right with the single paragraph of what the writer did wrong.  Which, in turn, is jarring, and leaves the reader with the impression that the essay was badly written.  Keep like with like.

The other problem is that many of the rest didn’t use their thesis statement as their framework for writing: they had their points in one order in the thesis statement, but had the body paragraphs in a different order.  I actually had one student go fully backwards–their first body paragraph’s main point was the last point listed in their thesis statement.

To recap, the two main things to keep in mind with organization are these: keep similar points together (did well in X and Y, but badly in Z), and make sure your paper’s body paragraphs follow the order outlined in your thesis statement.

If you stay focused, and follow the proper organization, you’re halfway there with what you need to know to write well.  Sadly, it takes most of a semester for me to convince most of the students I get coming through my classes that yes, it really is that simple.