Tips and Tricks for Self-Editing: Organization

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Hello, and welcome back to the tips and tricks self-editing series! Last time, we talked about content, our ideas and arguments. Today, we’re going to focus on the second most important aspect of writing: organization.

How many times have you stopped reading or looking at something because you didn’t know how to follow it? Did you persevere through the confusion to understand the content? Did you stop reading as soon as you realized the organization was bad? Writing is the same way. If we don’t organize our ideas properly, readers stop reading or get confused — both of which aren’t good for the writer.

Bad organization in writing feels like this:

Organization helps readers understand the connection between all your ideas. It helps readers pick up on how your reasons support your thesis. Organization tells readers where to find the information they are looking for easily. Furthermore, organization makes readers happy. If you don’t want to read something that’s unorganized, why would your reader?

You can catch these organization problems with a few techniques:

  • Reverse Outlining:
    When you reverse outline, you take the essay you already wrote and break it down into its main parts to create an outline of the essay as it is at the moment. After you complete the outline, take a look at the organization and ask yourself if it develops logically in order. If your organization needs work, then move the pieces around in the outline until it is moving from topic to topic logically. Afterward, apply those changes to your real essay.
  • Visual Mapping:
    In visual mapping, you create graphics that help you understand your ideas in a new way. You can create a flow chart of how your argument needs to progress for your audience to understand. You could also create a web to understand how your ideas relate together and which ones. Don’t forget to return to your draft and apply the necessary edits.
  • Sectioning:
    When using sectioning, you create headings and put each of your paragraphs under those headings. If you find paragraphs delving between two or more ideas or not fitting under any heading, then you need to rethink your organization. Ask yourself: how are these headings connected to each other? How are the paragraphs under each heading connected to each other? After you understand these connections, you will be ready to reorganize your essay.

Below is the organization checklist to keep in mind during revision, including some links to other SJSU Writing Center resources.

Self-Editing Checklist for Organization
󠄀      Do I have an introduction?
󠄀      Does my introduction funnel down from general to specific?
󠄀      Does my thesis roadmap the rest of my essay?
󠄀      Do my body paragraphs have topic sentences?
󠄀      Do my body paragraphs have conclusions?
󠄀      Do my sentences flow logically within each paragraph?
󠄀      Do I repeat old information before I introduce new information?
󠄀      Do my paragraphs follow the PIE structure?
󠄀      Do my paragraphs explore one idea only per paragraph?
󠄀      Do my paragraphs transition from one to the next?
󠄀      Do I have a conclusion?
󠄀      Does my conclusion go from specific to general?
󠄀      If applicable, do I move chronologically through time?

Now, let’s discuss some of these topics:

Your introduction is the second thing your audience reads after your title. It has to be engaging and interesting enough to make your audience want to keep reading. Remember, reading is supposed to be an enjoyable experience, even just an essay. Your introduction has to funnel down into the specifics of what you want to talk about, ending with your thesis.

Now, I know we mentioned the thesis before in content, but a thesis statement is also a great organizational tool that roadmaps your essay for your reader so they know what’s coming. Your thesis is your promise to your reader, and if your paper deviates from your thesis, your reader will know and feel misled. Consider the image below:

There are many ways to get from one place to another, and that’s true in an essay too. If this image is your essay’s roadmap, but you deviate from the blue line, someone is going to feel lost on the way. Let your reader know where you’re going and how you’re getting there, like you would on a road trip. Similarly, if your essay is one that moves through time, don’t skip around. Instead, move chronologically so your audience can follow along easily.

Body paragraphs are, again, often where students lose focus in their writing, not only in terms of content but also in terms of organization. Ideas have to have clear connections that are shown through topic sentences, conclusions, transitional words, and transitional sentences. Your job as a writer is to create these connections by building bridges between topics for your reader. Don’t let them fall off the bridge like this:

The Emperor’s New Groove

If your bridge is weak, your reader will fall through. Worse, if you don’t have a bridge at all, they have to jump across a ravine. Sentences have to develop an idea logically within a paragraph, and each paragraph has to flow logically into the next within the essay in an easy-to-follow way.

Each body paragraph should also only talk about one idea. If you find yourself talking about why you love dogs AND cats in a single paragraph, your paragraph is going to be confusing and long. No one likes turning the page to see a full block of text. Not even English majors. Instead, separate the two subjects, so you have a paragraph about why you love dogs and another about cats.

That’s all for today! Check in again for the next chapter in our series on grammar.

“Reorganizing Drafts.” The Writing Center UNC. The Writer Center UNC, 2012. Web. 23 April 2016.

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