In Search of Form

Everything that exists has a form. In writing, the goal is to find an appropriate form, one that suits your material and your purpose. Such a pattern may offer itself early in your writing process, or you may have to try out several possibilities before finding a suitable design.

Either way, a strong organizational pattern helps both you and your reader. For you, it offers guidance and direction as you explore your ideas. If you know how your emerging ideas fit into an overall plan, you can move forward more confidently than if you had to keep spinning out words without knowing where they might lead. Also, effective organization helps readers see how various parts of your paper relate to each other and to your unifying purpose.

If readers sense immediately that you're firmly in control, that you know where you're going and how you'll get there, they'll more likely come along than if they believe you lack direction and purpose.

We can't cover every possible strategy, but the following discussion shows the general concepts that underlie most organizational techniques and then looks at some specific patterns you can incorporate into your own writing. Notice, also, that the Paradigm sections on Informal Essays, Thesis/Support Essays, Exploratory Essays, and Argumentative Essays contain advice on organization.

Advance Planning, Freewheeling, Ongoing Adjustments

Some writers are heavy planners. They like to begin with an outline or at least a detailed understanding of where the writing will go and how it will get there. Other writers prefer to improvise, to follow their impulses and inspirations wherever they lead. Most successful writers come to see that both planning and freewheeling are important, that even outlines don't just spring into being without some inspiration and improvisation. And even the most original and expansive ideas eventually need to be shaped, evaluated, and prioritized.

As you organize your writing, then, think about your composing style. Are you more of a planner or an improviser? If you're a planner, try staying open to new possibilities that appear while you're writing. If you're a freewheeler, you might pause now and then to look at the big picture, to consider how the words you've just written might fit into an overall pattern.

The Whole and Its Parts

Effective organization requires you to see your subject as a whole and as a system of interrelated parts. As you move back and forth between a broad overview and a close-up look at an individual detail, you need to see, and let your reader see, how the two are related. Consider, for instance, a deck of playing cards. Fresh out of the box and wrapped in cellophane, it seems to be one single thing. Strewn randomly about the floor, each card is individual, complete, yet part of a larger system. And of course each card has parts--a front and a back, markings for suit and number.

To get a feel for the process of organization, imagine organizing a deck of cards. If you begin with a holistic view, seeing the deck as one thing, your task is to divide that whole into meaningful groups. You might divide it first by color, into red and black, then divide the red suits into diamonds and hearts, and so forth. If you begin with an atomistic view, seeing the deck as fifty two separate components, you need to gather those components into meaningful categories. You might put all the aces in one pile, all the queens in another, and so forth.

The point is that there's no single best way to organize the deck, but any good way of organizing the deck will connect the individual components (every single card) with a unified vision (the deck as a whole) according to some system that has purpose and value for the people involved. Bridge players might want to organize the cards one way, poker players another.


2.1 Select one of the lists below and organize its individual items into categories. In the table that follows, or a similar one that you make, label your categories and copy the individual items into their appropriate spots. The table provides for four categories, but you don't need to have that many.

List 1: onion, porkchop, apple, hamburger, banana, carrot, green bean, peach, chicken breast, potato, plum, hot dog

List 2: Hoe, rake, spoon, rototiller, socket wrench, screwdriver, blender, fork, hammer, spatula, power drill

List 3: Chicago, IL; New York, NY; Olympia, WA; Detroit, MI; Miami, FL; Portland, OR; Springfield, IL; Sacramento, CA; Lansing, MI; Seattle, WA; Albany, NY; Los Angeles, CA; Tallahassee, FL; Salem, OR

Category 1: Category 2: Category 3: Category 4:




Analysis and Synthesis

Analysis refers to dividing a whole into parts. Synthesis refers to the process of constructing a whole from an assortment of pieces. We've been considering a deck of cards, but the same principles apply almost everywhere. Consider an eyeball, for instance. Do you see it first as a whole that fits into a larger system, or do you see it first as a cornea, a retina, an iris? Neither way of seeing it is better, and both ways are important. In organizing your writing, consider whether you're trying to break a whole into parts or trying to construct a unified vision from a variety of individual components. Look at the big picture, look also at the individual pieces, and try to find a clear and systematic way of connecting them.


2.2 Pick one of the following subjects (or choose one of your own), and begin to analyze it by dividing it into parts: restaurants, teachers, automobiles, music, movies, politicians, dogs.

Construct at least two levels to your division.


  -- Pedigreed  

2.3 Pick one of the following lists (or make a list of your own) and synthesize it into a single holistic concept. Again, try to construct at least two levels to your system

A. dolphin, carp, whale, salmon, elk, wolf, bear, bird, butterfly, wasp

B. lake, bathtub, river, ocean, creek, sea, swimming pool, fishtank, pond, hot tub

C. pencil, book, computer, pen, keyboard, floppy disk, monitor, notebook, typewriter

D. walking, flying, bicycling, hitchhiking, jogging, driving, crawling

E. shirt, pants, jacket, necklace, sock, shoe, blouse, necktie, skirt, sweater


crawling --not mechanically aided  
    --ways to travel
hitchhiking --mechanically aided  

2.4 Look at a piece of writing that you want to organize better. See it as a whole. See it as a system of parts. Identify some essential divisions and categories. Write a short paragraph telling why these divisions are important and how they relate to your overall purpose in writing.

Pyramid Power

Many organizational patterns, especially outlines, are built on a hierarchical structure that classifies ideas and facts according to their level of generalization. At the top level is the thesis. Below this are the major conceptual divisions, each of which may be further divided along paragraph lines. This is the essential pattern of the Thesis/Support Essay, which takes the pyramidal structure through four levels (thesis, topic sentence, support sentence, detail).

This type of organization is not restricted to writing, however. Because organizational pyramids can be expanded through many levels, pyramidal hierarchies are used to order corporations and government agencies. For instance, you can probably imagine an organization chart depicting the structure of a small business. At the top might come the owner, below that the sales manager, the finance manager, and the production manager. The pyramid could then be extended through as many levels as necessary until all employees were ordered and ranked.

If you're trying to systematically organize a complex body of information, you may want to use a pyramid structure (Right click image for a full screen view.):


To create such a pyramid chart, determine the central, controlling principles, identify the major divisions, and continue the process of dividing and ranking through as many levels as necessary.


2.5 Think of an organization you belong to, a business you've worked for, or a government agency that you're familiar with. Now make a pyramid chart showing the organizational structure.

Webs and Networks

Like pyramids, webs and networks organize ideas into meaningful clusters and identify how the clusters are related. Here, however, the design tends to be more freeform and open-ended, with less rigid ranking and with numerous crosslinks among categories. This sort of organization, often called clustering or cognitive mapping, is especially useful in hypertext and other forms of electronic writing, but is also helpful in planning and organizing writing that will appear on paper.

(Right click image for a full screen view.)

Making a Cluster Map is a largely intuitive process. Writers identify meaningful chunks (or "nodes") of information, label the chunks, and draw lines (or "links") to show how the chunks are connected as parts of a unified system ("web").


2.6 Using a topic you've already generated or a new one that you're interested in writing about, make a Cluster Map. Do it quickly, using pencil and paper. Share and compare your Cluster Map with a partner.

Planning for Paragraphs

How Many?
How Long?

A paragraph is a visual cue for readers. The indentation at the beginning, like the capital letter at the start of a sentence, signals your reader that a new thought unit is about to begin. Just as sentences gather words and phrases into units of meaning, these sentences are gathered into paragraphs. The paragraphs, in turn, may be gathered into major subdivisions.

Therefore, it's good to give some thought to paragraphing as you consider overall organizational design. Let your paragraph divisions point up your organization.

How Many?

Since paragraphs help readers see important thought units, a general guideline would be to start a new paragraph whenever you begin writing about a new organizational topic. But this won't always work. In practice, you may find that two or three minor points can be treated in a single paragraph, or you may discover that what at first looked like a single subpoint is growing so big that it needs to be broken up.

Even so, if you remember that paragraphs cue your readers to important thought units below the level of your lowest subheading, yet above the level of the sentence, you'll have a good basis for deciding how many paragraphs you need.

How Long?

Because paragraphs are visual groupings, you also need to consider what your reader will actually see on the page. Longer paragraphs tend to slow the tempo of the writing, asking readers to bear down and concentrate while a complex issue is discussed. A series of short paragraphs picks up the tempo and invites readers to browse or skim lightly.

A single, unbroken page of text appears under-differentiated. Readers may wonder what the point is and why they can't find it. A whole page of single sentence paragraphs appears over-differentiated. Here, too, readers may wonder what the point is and why they can't find it.

So, what is your font size? Are you double spacing? In a standard format of double-spaced Courier 10, you should get about 250 words per page. This means you might want your average paragraphs to run about 175 words. Longer paragraphs will give a feel of thoroughness and complexity but may bog your readers down and tangle them up. Shorter paragraphs will pick up the tempo but may fragment your readers' perceptions of your organization. You may find it effective to vary your paragraph length, using long ones to explore and develop ideas and shorter ones to summarize or make transitions..

Briefly, there's no set rule for how long a paragraph should be. Consider your important divisions. Consider how the paragraph will look on the page. Consider your reader and your purpose in writing. Make the best decision you can. If you need suggestions for fully developing your paragraphs, check Thesis/Support Essays.


2.7 Choose a sequence of four or five paragraphs from a textbook and another sequence from a popular magazine. Study the paragraphing in each; consider the writing's audience and purpose as well as its subject and format. Then write your own paragraph explaining the similarities and differences you see in the paragraphing.

Arranging and Ordering

Unlike pyramid charts and cluster maps, which can show complex organizational relationships in a single glance, your writing itself is sequential. Readers don't encounter all your ideas at once but one after another. Keeping this in mind, you need to consider how best to order your discussion and how to provide signposts that help readers locate themselves and see where they're headed.

The following suggestions should help readers see and follow your organizational plan.

Arranging and Ordering
Create Expectations
Consider a Strategy of Disclosure
Choose a Natural Order

Create Expectations:

Often this involves little more than forecasting or predicting where the discussion will go. If you tell readers that you'll cover four points, they'll expect you to do so, and to cover those points in the order you list them. If you honor your commitment by satisfying these expectations, readers will perceive your writing to be organized.

You can forecast on the level of the essay as a whole or on the sentence and paragraph levels. Doing so not only helps readers see where you're headed, it can help set you up as a writer, so you know where you're headed and how close you are to your destination. In fact, you may find it helpful to think of yourself as a tour guide telling readers what they can expect to encounter both on the trip as a whole and at each stop along the way

Consider a Strategy of Disclosure:

You may not always want to give away your whole plan at the beginning. You may want readers to feel some suspense and anticipation about where the discussion is heading. If so, you may want to hint at what lies ahead but to withhold some details, enticing readers to keep moving forward in order to have their curiosity satisfied.

Such an approach can be quite effective, partly because it piques reader interest, but also because it forces you to carefully consider possible reader response. If you give away too much, you'll break the suspense. If you give away too little, readers may lose the thread you want them to follow. You need to ask yourself how much information and what kind of information your readers need to have at each step of the discussion. In the end, readers should feel that their expectations have been satisfied.

Choose a Natural Order:

From left to right, from top to bottom, from front to back, from past to future, from worst to best, from least important to most important--these could all be considered natural orders. But each pair could also be reversed and still seem natural. Maybe the most natural order of all is a tangled mess: a plateful of clam linguine. The point is that almost any order can be natural if it connects your subject, your purpose, and your reader.

Look closely at your subject and see if it offers any guidance. How are the parts connected? Suppose each point was a birthday gift for a friend, can you see any reason why one should be opened first--or last? Would it make more sense to open the batteries first--or the portable CD player? Imagine each point was a course in a meal. Which is the appetizer? The main course. The dessert? Intuition, imagination, and common sense are your guides here.

Showing the Links

Even though you've organized everything carefully, your paper may still feel somewhat choppy and disjointed. All the pieces are in place, yet the writing lacks fluidity, rhythm, continuity. The methods used to achieve this fluid quality are called transitional devices. These techniques will help you emphasize the links between levels on a pyramid or between chunks on a cluster map.

Some useful transitional devices are given below. Get to know them, and more importantly, learn how to use them in your own writing.

Showing the Links
Transitional Expressions Pronoun Reference
Key Words And Synonyms Sentence Patterns

Transitional Expressions

These words and phrases act as signposts for readers, telling which direction the writing is about to move in. They usually come at the beginning of a sentence, where they show how a new thought relates to what has come before. Some common transitional expressions are listed below, according to the type of relationship they indicate.

contrast and qualification--on the contrary, however, in contrast, still, yet, nevertheless, on the other hand

continuity--besides, furthermore, in addition, also, secondly, to continue, next, similarly, likewise, moreover, indeed, again, in other words

cause/effect--thus, therefore, as a result, consequently, hence, for this reason

exemplification--for instance, for example, in fact, more specifically, to illustrate

summation--finally, in conclusion, to sum up, in brief, lastly, as we have seen

Pronoun Reference

Pronouns stand in place of other words that have already been used. This makes them useful as transitional devices. They look back at and connect with what has come before, and in doing so they help readers see connections between thoughts.

The paragraph above uses pronouns as transitional devices.

Pronouns stand in place of other words that have been used. This characteristic makes them very useful as transitional devices. They look back at and connect with what has come before, and in doing so they help readers see connections between thoughts.

Notice the word "this" in the second sentence. It combines with "characteristic" and refers back to "standing in place of other words," thereby working much like a pronoun to provide a sense of continuity. "This," "that," "these," and "those" are called demonstratives and can be effective transitional devices. Be careful, though, to make the demonstrative's reference clear.

Key Words and Synonyms

Key words are words that refer to your central ideas. Often they appear in the subject or the verb slot of the main clause. Repeating these essential terms not only keeps them at the forefront of your readers' attention, but also helps stitch your sentences together, providing coherence and continuity between thoughts. When a key term begins to feel over used, substitute a synonym. Then, after using the synonym a few times, come back to the key word.

Careless, unconscious repetition is, of course, almost always weak and should be avoided, but deliberate, purposeful repetition is often an effective writing technique.

Sentence Patterns

Like key words, individual sentence patterns can be echoed and repeated from one place to another. Doing so helps to establish a rhythmic style, and if the repetitions accentuate organizational levels, readers will have an enhanced sense of order and design. As with key words, repeated sentence patterns also need to be varied now and then. Doing so adds interest and helps prevent monotony.


2.8 Choose a sequence of four or five paragraphs from a textbook and another from a popular magazine. Study the transitional devices in each and then write a paragraph of your own explaining the similarities and differences. Consider the writing's audience and purpose as well as its subject and format.

Your Word Processor's Outliner

As the user of a word processor, you have access to the program's Outline feature, which you may find useful. It's often found on the View or Tools menu. Once you become familiar with it, the outliner can help you establish and arrange complex organizational categories and subcategories.

Still, a note of caution is in order. Until you get used to using the outliner, you may find that it's interfering rather than helping. Don't try it for the first time when you're working against a deadline. Experiment with it, and if you think you'd like to use the outliner in your writing, read the documentation to learn more about its features.


2.9 Create a short outline of your own using your word processor's Outline feature. Include at least seven items and three levels.