Helping Students Organize Their Writing

Roger Gilles, Writing Department

Part 1: Some Ideas about Organization (and Some Activities)

A piece of writing is an implied dialogue. Ask students to write out the readers' side of the dialogue as they draft.

A content outline is more useful than a structural outline. After students collect and organize their information and/or write an early draft, have them write a descriptive content outline as a way of seeing what they've got.

People (readers) can best handle 5 +/- 2 "chunks" of material, regardless of the length of the piece. Ask students to arrange their material into 3-7 chunks, excluding opening and concluding material.

Headings force organization. Think hypertext. Have students give each of their chunks a title and then treat each chunk as a free-standing piece, like a linked webpage.

A piece of writing is a series of promises and deliveries, all delivering on one big promise - which is the main idea. Sketch out the piece as a series of boxes - promise on top, delivery on bottom (see below).

Order is important, too - but it's not the same as organization. Once all chunks are written (or once the content outline is written), have students "talk through" 3 or 4 alternative orders of material. Which one seems easiest, or most natural?

Part 2: Par Example: Women's Role in the French Revolution

This essay consists of 8 paragraphs and a Works Cited list. Try to reconstruct the organization of the essay.

Explain how and why you chose the order of the paragraphs.

What difficulties did you have. Why?

Summarize each paragraph in a simple sentence. If you see more than one important idea in a paragraph, go ahead and write two or more sentences for that paragraph. Write each of your sentences on a separate index card.

How many sentences did you end up with?

Now organize those sentences along the lines of the "sketch" we discussed earlier.

What is the main idea of the essay?

How many "second level" ideas do you have? Give each of these a title, as if you were creating headings.

How many "third level" ideas do you have? Any fourth-level ideas?

Now let's look at the original essay (which received a good grade in a HST 106 class).

How would your new organization help the essay?

Page last modified February 16, 2017