Some Notes about Organization

As with a couple of previous posts (here and here), the present post is lightly adapted from teaching materials I’d posted online back when I still had students. I offer it here in the hopes that some will find it useful.

The writing that typically gets labeled as “argumentative” in classrooms serves to present a central idea–a thesis–and to support that idea through the provision of explained evidence. The way in which the evidence is provided can serve to ease its acceptance by readers, helping them to understand what is being given to them and ordering it such that the individual effect of each piece of evidence is amplified. At the paragraph and whole-paper levels, then, what order materials appear matters–as does the way in which the paper moves among those materials. What follows offers some discussion of such concerns.

To ease navigation, the following:

Organization matters, in writing as in any other task.
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Paragraph Organization

Paragraphs are the basic organizational units of prose writing (although they are typically composite constructions), presenting and supporting ideas that further the governing concept of the piece of writing being done. In the context of an academic essay, paragraphs present ideas that inform the thesis, as well as supporting information and explanation for it. This is true whether the paragraph is introductory, in the body, or concluding.

Introductory paragraphs, as the name implies, serve to lead the reader into the essay. While longer pieces can–and should and do–have multiple-paragraph introductions, the kinds of essays asked of first-year college writing typically will not; they will usually be of such a length as will only admit of one such paragraph. One useful model for such paragraphs is

  • The Hook
  • Text
  • The Thesis
  • Essay Map

The hook is a statement or series of statements intended to command reader attention–to begin the pathos appeal necessary for effective persuasion and argument. It is, admittedly, optional; some situations create the attention and appeal through their nature. But for most argumentation, there has to be some reason for readers to keep reading, and the hook offers that initial reason. Techniques for effectively developing attention vary; which are deployed say much about the presumed audience of a piece, as well as about its expected context of use.

The text that follows the hook will tend to lead towards the central point of the paper, and it will generally do so by offering context for disucssion. That is, it will clarify the topic being treated and the angle of approach to that topic (perhaps giving a review of the most recent extant literature on the topic and/or outlining in summary form a tertiary source that informs the approach). In effect, it bridges the gap between the hook and what follows, helping readers position themselves to make sense of what is to come.

The thesis is as it is in other discussions. It is the central idea of the paper, the point of it, the thing to which the rest of the work is servant and support. Traditionally, it appears at or near the end of the introduction, where it can be seen easily and serve as a guide for the reading (and writing!) to come.

The essay map is an optional inclusion in a shorter essay such as first-year writing classes will usually request. It is what the name suggests: a map of the essay to come. That is, it lays out the major argumentative points in the order that they are made in the paper. Done well, it eases reading; readers know what to expect and when, and they can therefore follow the writing more easily. Done poorly, it undermines ethos; deviating from the map is, in effect, lying to the reader, and a writer who lies once may well do so again.

Body paragraphs serve to provide the information that supports the thesis, as well as to explain that information such that readers can make sense of it. (They are the focus of the section on paper organization, below.) They will constitute the bulk of the paper–not a simple majority, but an overwhelming proportion. They will also need to strike a balance between enough heft to be credible and enough brevity to be scannable–and how long they are therefore will vary by topic, thesis, and intended audience.

One useful model for such paragraphs is

  • Transition into the
  • Main Idea
  • Evidence Supporting the Main Idea
  • Explanation of How the Evidence Supports the Main Idea
  • Explanation of How the Main Idea Supports the Thesis

That is, a body paragraph will usefully open by indicating its relationship to what precedes it (about which more below). It will then do well to present its own main idea, followed by evidence that supports it informationally tagged. Something like “For example,” or “Other researchers have commented to that effect” might work. The evidence will need to be explained, however; it does not stand on its own, but must be acted upon to be of any value. And its relevance to the greater topic of the paper must be demonstrated; readers should not be asked to guess at it.

Concluding paragraphs, as the name implies, serve to lead the reader out of the essay. A commonplace method for drafting them is to return to the device of the hook–although not all such devices lend themselves to such treatment. Another, one that works far better in speech than in print (for shorter works), is to reiterate the argumentative structure. Still another, and one that works well in speech and in print, is to trace implications forward, to articulate the “so what?” that any work of research produces. How the reader can use the thesis, now that it has been validated by the paper, merits consideration–and it offers a good way to get the reader back into the wider world.

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Paper Organization

How the paragraphs in the body of the essay are laid out can serve to make the reader’s task of understanding easier, as well as to align to audience expectations and to enhance the effects of the information presented within them. Conversely, the order can serve to confuse the reader, leading from one idea to another in no pattern or one that does not make sense. Part of eliminating that confusion derives from appropriate use of transitions, as discussed below, but more of it comes from the effective ordering of paragraphs within the essay.

There are a number of orders in which paragraphs, within the body and extending outside it, can array themselves. Some of the more notable are

  • Chronological
  • Emphatic
  • IMRaD
  • Problem/Solution

There are, others, as well, the discussion of which exceeds what may be given here.

Chronological order is exactly what it sounds like; it orders points of argument by their occurrence in time. What happens first gets discussed first; second, second; and so on. It has the advantage of being easy to understand; it has the disadvantages of being somewhat flat and of not necessarily foregrounding what is best to foreground.

It also has a useful variant: reverse chronological order. It, too, is what it sounds like; it begins at the end and works back to the beginning. Its chief utility is in causal work, since cause must precede effect.

Emphatic order is the traditional rhetorical order that is taught in schools. It puts the weakest point of argument first; each successive point is stronger, until the last is the strongest. (Relative strength is usually determined by the amount of evidence available to support a point. Some exceptions will apply, but they exceed the scope of this discussion.) It has the advantages of being conventional and of promoting excellent forward momentum. It has the disadvantage of demanding that the readership remain reading for the whole paper–and not all readers will.

As such, a variant of the traditional rhetorical order is available: journalistic or executive summary order. It works in reverse of the traditional order, putting the strongest point first so that it is taken in and understood. The advantage is clear: readers get the strongest point. Those who will remain, however, may feel let down, and negotiating transitions among points can be a challenge.

Another variant, which may be called mixed emphatic order, can be applied to slightly longer papers. In it, the second-strongest point is presented first, then the weakest, and following points grow successively stronger, until the strongest is presented last. Readers who have to leave early still get a solid point; those who remain are rewarded with forward momentum and the traditionally satisfying conclusion. But the order does demand a longer paper; three points will not sustain it, and five will only barely do so.

IMRaD order is common in social and other sciences. In moving through an introduction (that lays out the topic, recent literature treating it, the gaps in that literature, and the current project), methodology (how the project seeks to do its work), results (what the methods produced), and discussion (what the results mean and what implications they have), the IMRaD model is easy to understand and applies well to reports of experiments and other empirical research. Not all interpretive work applies to such research, however, so it is not universally applicable.

Problem/Solution order is also a common pattern. Papers written in it will establish what problem is to be addressed, why it is a problem, and for whom it is a problem. Afterwards, they will address what solution is best for that group to pursue or have pursued by others, articulating why that solution is best (likely incorporating alternatives and noting why they do not work as well as might be hoped). Like IMRaD and chronology, it is easily understood, but, as with IMRaD, problem/solution patterns do not work for all inquiries.

Always, the purpose being addressed and the audience with whom it is addressed must be kept in mind. They should determine what pattern should be deployed, since it is their needs that must be met for effective argument.

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It can be fun and easy to move from one thing to the next.
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Transitions

Moving from one point to another, and even from one sentence to another, can be jarring for readers. They are asked by the act of reading a new thing to take in and process a new idea, and if they are not moved smoothly between them, they may not be able to folow–or to follow well. It is therefore important to clearly indicate how what happens in the text’s now relates to what it follows–and that indication comes about through effective use of transitional devices.

Such devices need not be complicated; indeed, many follow predictable patterns or can be made to do so. Some examples include

  • Additive (indicating that a new point is added on, more useful as something to mix into other patterns than as a primary pattern in itself): One, Another, Yet another, Still another, A final; One, A further, Yet a further, Still a further, A final; One, An additional, etc.; Also; Too; In addition; Moreover
  • Chronological: First, Next, Then, After, Last; First, Second, Third, etc.; explicit time/date indications
  • Spatial (useful more within descriptive paragraphs than as a primary organizing principle for a paper): Top to bottom, left to right / right to left, front to back, outside in / inside out, best-side to beast-side / east to west, north to south
  • Causal: Thus, Hence, Therefore, As a result, Consequently, Ergo, So
  • Contrastive (useful to introduce counter-argument and rebuttal, as well as to argue against ideas or to set up an argument): But, Yet, Rather, Instead, Divergently, In contrast, However
  • Emphatic: One, A stronger, A yet stronger, A still stronger, Strongest; One, More important, Yet more important, Still more important, Most important; One, A better, A yet better, A still better, Best

Others are available, of course, and it is important to keep in mind that, although pattern-building is useful, over-reliance on any one pattern of transition will bore the reader. Readerly boredom is unhelpful; break the pattern to emphasize what needs emphasis, but keep it to ease the reader along. The juxtaposition of the two could be quite productive, indeed.

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I’d be happy to put my talents to work for you; let me know what all you need written, and we’ll talk!

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