- Understand how and why organizational techniques help writers and readers stay focused.
- Assess how and when to use chronological order to organize an essay.
- Recognize how and when to use order of importance to organize an essay.
- Determine how and when to use spatial order to organize an essay.
The method of organization you choose for your essay is just as important as its content. Without a clear organizational pattern, your reader could become confused and lose interest. The way you structure your essay helps your readers draw connections between the body and the thesis, and the structure also keeps you focused as you plan and write the essay. Choosing your organizational pattern before you outline ensures that each body paragraph works to support and develop your thesis.
This section covers three ways to organize body paragraphs:
- Chronological order
- Order of importance
- Spatial order
When you begin to draft your essay, your ideas may seem to flow from your mind in a seemingly random manner. Your readers, who bring to the table different backgrounds, viewpoints, and ideas, need you to clearly organize these ideas in order to help process and accept them.
A solid organizational pattern gives your ideas a path that you can follow as you develop your draft. Knowing how you will organize your paragraphs allows you to better express and analyze your thoughts. Planning the structure of your essay before you choose supporting evidence helps you conduct more effective and targeted research.
In Chapter 8 “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?”, you learned that chronological arrangement has the following purposes:
- To explain the history of an event or a topic
- To tell a story or relate an experience
- To explain how to do or to make something
- To explain the steps in a process
Chronological order is mostly used in expository writing, which is a form of writing that narrates, describes, informs, or explains a process. When using chronological order, arrange the events in the order that they actually happened, or will happen if you are giving instructions. This method requires you to use words such as first, second, then, after that, later, and finally. These transition words guide you and your reader through the paper as you expand your thesis.
For example, if you are writing an essay about the history of the airline industry, you would begin with its conception and detail the essential timeline events up until present day. You would follow the chain of events using words such as first, then, next, and so on.
Writing at Work
At some point in your career you may have to file a complaint with your human resources department. Using chronological order is a useful tool in describing the events that led up to your filing the grievance. You would logically lay out the events in the order that they occurred using the key transition words. The more logical your complaint, the more likely you will be well received and helped.
Choose an accomplishment you have achieved in your life. The important moment could be in sports, schooling, or extracurricular activities. On your own sheet of paper, list the steps you took to reach your goal. Try to be as specific as possible with the steps you took. Pay attention to using transition words to focus your writing.
Keep in mind that chronological order is most appropriate for the following purposes:
- Writing essays containing heavy research
- Writing essays with the aim of listing, explaining, or narrating
- Writing essays that analyze literary works such as poems, plays, or books
When using chronological order, your introduction should indicate the information you will cover and in what order, and the introduction should also establish the relevance of the information. Your body paragraphs should then provide clear divisions or steps in chronology. You can divide your paragraphs by time (such as decades, wars, or other historical events) or by the same structure of the work you are examining (such as a line-by-line explication of a poem).
On a separate sheet of paper, write a paragraph that describes a process you are familiar with and can do well. Assume that your reader is unfamiliar with the procedure. Remember to use the chronological key words, such as first, second, then, and finally.
Order of Importance
Recall from Chapter 8 “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?” that order of importance is best used for the following purposes:
- Persuading and convincing
- Ranking items by their importance, benefit, or significance
- Illustrating a situation, problem, or solution
Most essays move from the least to the most important point, and the paragraphs are arranged in an effort to build the essay’s strength. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to begin with your most important supporting point, such as in an essay that contains a thesis that is highly debatable. When writing a persuasive essay, it is best to begin with the most important point because it immediately captivates your readers and compels them to continue reading.
For example, if you were supporting your thesis that homework is detrimental to the education of high school students, you would want to present your most convincing argument first, and then move on to the less important points for your case.
Some key transitional words you should use with this method of organization are most importantly, almost as importantly, just as importantly, and finally.
Writing at Work
During your career, you may be required to work on a team that devises a strategy for a specific goal of your company, such as increasing profits. When planning your strategy you should organize your steps in order of importance. This demonstrates the ability to prioritize and plan. Using the order of importance technique also shows that you can create a resolution with logical steps for accomplishing a common goal.
On a separate sheet of paper, write a paragraph that discusses a passion of yours. Your passion could be music, a particular sport, filmmaking, and so on. Your paragraph should be built upon the reasons why you feel so strongly. Briefly discuss your reasons in the order of least to greatest importance.
As stated in Chapter 8 “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?”, spatial order is best used for the following purposes:
- Helping readers visualize something as you want them to see it
- Evoking a scene using the senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound)
- Writing a descriptive essay
Spatial order means that you explain or describe objects as they are arranged around you in your space, for example in a bedroom. As the writer, you create a picture for your reader, and their perspective is the viewpoint from which you describe what is around you.
The view must move in an orderly, logical progression, giving the reader clear directional signals to follow from place to place. The key to using this method is to choose a specific starting point and then guide the reader to follow your eye as it moves in an orderly trajectory from your starting point.
Pay attention to the following student’s description of her bedroom and how she guides the reader through the viewing process, foot by foot.
Attached to my bedroom wall is a small wooden rack dangling with red and turquoise necklaces that shimmer as you enter. Just to the right of the rack is my window, framed by billowy white curtains. The peace of such an image is a stark contrast to my desk, which sits to the right of the window, layered in textbooks, crumpled papers, coffee cups, and an overflowing ashtray. Turning my head to the right, I see a set of two bare windows that frame the trees outside the glass like a 3D painting. Below the windows is an oak chest from which blankets and scarves are protruding. Against the wall opposite the billowy curtains is an antique dresser, on top of which sits a jewelry box and a few picture frames. A tall mirror attached to the dresser takes up most of the wall, which is the color of lavender.
The paragraph incorporates two objectives you have learned in this chapter: using an implied topic sentence and applying spatial order. Often in a descriptive essay, the two work together.
The following are possible transition words to include when using spatial order:
- Just to the left or just to the right
- On the left or on the right
- Across from
- A little further down
- To the south, to the east, and so on
- A few yards away
- Turning left or turning right
On a separate sheet of paper, write a paragraph using spatial order that describes your commute to work, school, or another location you visit often.
Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.
- The way you organize your body paragraphs ensures you and your readers stay focused on and draw connections to, your thesis statement.
- A strong organizational pattern allows you to articulate, analyze, and clarify your thoughts.
- Planning the organizational structure for your essay before you begin to search for supporting evidence helps you conduct more effective and directed research.
- Chronological order is most commonly used in expository writing. It is useful for explaining the history of your subject, for telling a story, or for explaining a process.
- Order of importance is most appropriate in a persuasion paper as well as for essays in which you rank things, people, or events by their significance.
- Spatial order describes things as they are arranged in space and is best for helping readers visualize something as you want them to see it; it creates a dominant impression.
This is a derivative of Writing for Success by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Why you want organization. . .
When we talk about effective writing, we often think first about elements like word choice, grammar and mechanics, and content or evidence. But a really important part of effective writingand effective thinking, toois clear, logical organization.
Maybe an analogy will help here. I know where every tool and ingredient is in my kitchen, and I can cook pretty efficiently. When I begin a recipe, I bring out all the ingredients, measure them, and line them up in the order in which I'll use them. Even complicated recipes seem fairly easy once I have everything laid out, and the organization gives me some sense of control.
In the chaos of my garage, on the other hand, I don't know where anything is, and I'll leave a faucet dripping for a week because I don't want to hunt down a screwdriver or a wrench. I find it hard even to imagine more complicated projects. My office looks like a shambles, tooand I've wasted a lot of time looking for a book or document that I know is here somewhere. Thinking and acting are both harder when things are disorganized.
The same principle affects you and me as writers and readers. When things are laid out in some sort of order, we can work with them more easily. If we can impose some kind of order on information, the information is easier to talk about, easier to understand, and easier to remember. If you choose a clear, recognizable pattern (for a single paragraph, and also for a whole essay), you find it easier to select details and choose transitions, and you also help your reader discover relationships that connect things, that make things seem more coherent.
How you find organization . . .
Humor me for a moment and agree that organization is really desirable, both in the process of writing and in the product of writing. The remaining problem is figuring out how to create or impose that organization.
My garage is such a mess that I can't see beyond the clutter, but other people have neat garages, so I know a clean garage is possible. I just need to choose some principle of organization.
I could start by putting all the lawn and garden stuff on the left wall and all the house maintenance stuff on the right wall. Then I could arrange the two sidesmaybe all the big stuff (rakes, mower, ladder, tiller, power saw) closer to the garage door, and smaller stuff nearer to the far wall. Or I could arrange everything in alphabetical order, hanging or standing the stuff clockwise from the left wall, around the back, and then back along the right wall. Or I could put supplies on one wall, power tools on another, and manual hand tools on the third. Or I could have a section for gardening, a section for lawn care, a section for exterior house maintenance, and another for interior house maintenance. Maybe I could arrange them in order of frequency of use (if I ever used any of it . . .). Actually, any of those principles of order would help me find stuff in my garageI just have to choose one principle and impose it.
It's the same with writing. With any given group of ideas and details, you might use any of a number of principles of organization, and any one of them would help you and your reader. Some will be better than others, of course (I really can't see alphabetizing the tools and supplies in my garage, even though it would make them easier to find later). The main trick to imposing organization is to know some options and to choose one.
[By the way, another similarity between organizing my garage and organizing writing is the need for some motivation. I don't want to organize my garage, because I don't want to do any work around the house to begin with. Leaving the place a mess suits me fine. If I never wanted to write or talk or think, I wouldn't need to deal with organizing ideas or details. Give some thought to your own motivation as you think about this stuff.]
Patterns of Exposition (versus Principles of Organization)
In A Writer's Reference, Diana Hacker talks about "patterns of organization" (section C4-c, pp. 26-31). She identifies these as
|examples and illustrations||narration||description|
|process||comparison and contrast||analogy|
|cause and effect||classification and division||definition|
But these are not exclusively patterns of organization. As Hacker herself says, these patterns are "sometimes called methods of development." Randall Decker uses the same patterns to group essays in our reader, and he calls them "patterns of exposition." A slightly more formal term you may run across is "rhetorical modes." These patterns (or methods or modes) are partially patterns of organization, and partially patterns of developmentthat is, sometimes they help you organize content; other times they help you find content.
Some of these rhetorical modes do imply basic patterns for organizing information. Underlying organizational patterns seem particularly clear in comparison & contrast [you can look at the online discussion of comparison and contrast to see its basic organizational patterns]; in process [do this, then do this, then do this; or this happens, then this happens, then this happens]; and in cause & effect [this happens, then (as a result) this happens]. Organization is also imposed by definition [narrowing groups of meanings, from the broad class to which the term belongs, to the narrower groups, to the individual distinguishing characteristics], and in most narration [this happened, then this happened, then this happened].
Principles of Organization
I think you can develop a more flexible sense of organization if you also look at some patterns that are more exclusively patterns or principles of organization. You should understand, though, that these four broad principles have many variations, that they sometimes overlap with patterns of development or exposition, and that good writing sometimes combines different methods.
Chronological Order (order of Time)
In chronological order or time order, items, events, or even ideas are arranged in the order in which they occur. This pattern is marked by such transitions as next, then, the following morning, a few hours later, still later, that Wednesday, by noon, when she was seventeen, before the sun rose, that April, and so on.
Chronological order can suit different rhetorical modes or patterns of exposition. It naturally fits in narration, because when we tell a story, we usually follow the order in which events occur. Chronological order applies to process in the same way, because when we describe or explain how something happens or works, we usually follow the order in which the events occur. But chronological order may also apply to example, description, or parts of any other pattern of exposition.
Another principle of organization is spatial order. In this pattern, items are arranged according to their physical position or relationships. In describing a shelf or desk, I might describe items on the left first, then move gradually toward the right. Describing a room, I might start with what I see as I enter the door, then what I see as I step to the middle of the room, and finally the far side. In explaining some political or social problem, I might discuss first the concerns of the East Coast, then those of the Midwest, then those of the West Coast. Describing a person, I might start at the feet and move up to the head, or just the other way around. This pattern might use such transitions as just to the right, a little further on, to the south of Memphis, a few feet behind, in New Mexico, turning left on the pathway, and so on. Spatial order is pretty common in description, but can also apply to examples, to some comparisons, some classifications [the southern species of this bird . . . ; rhinos in Southeast Asia . . .], some narrations [meanwhile, out on the prairie ], and other forms of exposition as well.
Climactic Order (Order of Importance)
A third common principle of organization is climactic order or order of importance. In this pattern, items are arranged from least important to most important. Typical transitions would include more important, most difficult, still harder, by far the most expensive, even more damaging, worse yet, and so on. This is a flexible principle of organization, and may guide the organization of all or part of example, comparison & contrast, cause & effect, and description.
A variation of climactic order is called psychological order. This pattern or organization grows from our learning that readers or listeners usually give most attention to what comes at the beginning and the end, and least attention to what is in the middle. In this pattern, then, you decide what is most important and put it at the beginning or the end; next you choose what is second most important and put it at the end or the beginning (whichever remains); the less important or powerful items are then arranged in the middle. If the order of importance followed 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, with 5 being most important, psychological order might follow the order 4, 3, 1, 2, 5.
- Still other principles of organization based on emphasis include
- general-to-specific order,
- specific-to general order,
- order of frequency,
- order of familiarity, and so on.
A fourth broad principle of organization is called topical order, and this is sort of a catchall pattern. It refers to organization that emerges from the topic itself. For example, a description of a computer might naturally involve the separate components of the central processing unit, the monitor, and the keyboard, while a discussion of a computer purchase might discuss needs, products, vendors, and service. A discussion of a business might explore product, customer, and location, and so on. Topical order, then, simply means an order that arises from the nature of the topic itself. Transitions in this pattern will be a little vaguethings like another factor, the second component, in addition, and so on.
I'm not sure any single list can identify all of the different logical ways of organizing information. You may have forms in your workplace that impose a certain order on how an event or action is reported. Many people trying to persuade others to change policy or behavior often examine the issue in the order of need or problem first, then the benefits of the change, then the mechanics or ease of implementing the change. You may see a question-answer pattern, a problem-solution pattern, or sometimes a solution-problem pattern. You will also see (and use) combinations of patterns as your ideas and purposes become more complex.
You do need to see, though, that imposing order on information makes the information easier to talk about, easier to understand, and easier to remember. If you choose a clear, recognizable pattern (on the level of the single paragraph, and also on the level of the whole essay body), you guide yourself in selecting details and choosing transitions, and you also guide your reader in discovering relationships that connect things, that make things seem more coherent. [See the section on Transitions.]
|narration, process, examples and illustrations, cause & effect||next; later; the following Tuesday; afterwards; by noon; when she had finally digested the giant burrito; as soon as; in 1998|
|description, examples & illustrations||just to the right; a little further on; to the south of Memphis; a few feet behind; directly on the bridge of his nose and a centimeter above his gaping, hairy nostrils; turning left on the pathway|
|examples & illustrations, description, comparison & contrast, analogy||more importantly; best of all; still worse; a more effective approach; even more expensive; even more painful than passing a kidney stone; the least wasteful; occasionally, frequently, regularly|
|classification & division, comparison & contrast, analogy, definition, examples & illustrations||the first element; another key part; a third common principle of organization; Brent also objected to Stella's breath|