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Humanities Libertexts

3.5: Organizing

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    Skills to Develop

    • Identify appropriate rhetorical pattern for the topic and the task
    • Identify components of an effective thesis statement
    • Identify components of an effective logical argument
    • Identify components of an effective paragraph
    • Identify components of an effective essay body
    • Identify components of an effective introduction
    • Identify components of an effective conclusion

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    You may hear the terms structure and organization used interchangeably when it comes to essay writing.  Both are important aspects, but they do have an important distinction.

    Structure refers to the function a particular piece of your essay serves in the essay.  Elements like introductions, body paragraphs, and conclusions are structural components of an essay. It’s similar to the structure of a house: certain spaces are designated as a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen, and so forth.

    As we know, houses appear in many different shapes and sizes, even though they contain all of these similar features.  You might say that the structure of a house can be organized in many different ways.  In writing, organization is where your unique approach as an author comes into play.  In what particular order are body paragraphs placed? Why?

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    In short, structure is the what, and organization is the why.

    As a writer, you’ll identify what pieces are necessary for your essay to include.  Then you’ll determine what order those pieces will appear in, and how they connect together.

    How to Write a Thesis Statement

    Whether you are writing a short essay or a doctoral dissertation, your thesis statement will arguably be the most difficult sentence to formulate. An effective thesis statement states the purpose of the paper and, therefore, functions to control, assert and structure your entire argument. Without a sound thesis, your argument may sound weak, lacking in direction, and uninteresting to the reader.

    Start with a question — then make the answer your thesis

    Regardless of how complicated the subject is, almost any thesis can be constructed by answering a question.

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    • Question: “What are the benefits of using computers in a fourth-grade classroom?”
      • Thesis: “Computers allow fourth graders an early advantage in technological and scientific education.”
    • Question: “Why is the Mississippi River so important in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn?”
      • Thesis: “The river comes to symbolize both division and progress, as it separates our characters and country while still providing the best chance for Huck and Jim to get to know one another.”
    • Question: “Why do people seem to get angry at vegans, feminists, and other ‘morally righteous’ subgroups?”
      • Thesis: “Through careful sociological study, we’ve found that people naturally assume that “morally righteous” people look down on them as “inferior,” causing anger and conflict where there generally is none.”

    Tailor your thesis to the type of paper you’re writing

    Not all essays persuade, and not all essays teach. The goals of your paper will help you find the best thesis.

    • Analytical: Breaks down something to better examine and understand it.
      • Ex. “This dynamic between different generations sparks much of the play’s tension, as age becomes a motive for the violence and unrest that rocks King Lear.”
    • Expository: Teaches or illuminates a point.
      • Ex. “The explosion of 1800’s philosophies like Positivism, Marxism, and Darwinism undermined and refuted Christianity to instead focus on the real, tangible world.”
    • Argumentative: Makes a claim, or backs up an opinion, to change other peoples’ minds.
      • Ex. “Without the steady hand and specific decisions of Barack Obama, America would never have recovered from the hole it entered in the early 2000’s.”

    Ensure your thesis is provable

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    Do not come up with your thesis and then look it up later. The thesis is the end point of your research, not the beginning. You need to use a thesis you can actually back up with evidence.

    Good Theses Examples:

    • “By owning up to the impossible contradictions, embracing them and questioning them, Blake forges his own faith, and is stronger for it. Ultimately, the only way for his poems to have faith is to temporarily lose it.”
    • “According to its well-documented beliefs and philosophies, an existential society with no notion of either past or future cannot help but become stagnant.”
    • “By reading “Ode to a Nightingale” through a modern deconstructionist lens, we can see how Keats viewed poetry as shifting and subjective, not some rigid form.”

    Bad Theses Examples:

    • “The wrong people won the American Revolution.” While striking and unique, who is “right” and who is “wrong” is exceptionally hard to prove, and very subjective.
    • “The theory of genetic inheritance is the binding theory of every human interaction.” Too complicated and overzealous. The scope of “every human interaction” is just too big
    • “Paul Harding’s novel Tinkers is ultimately a cry for help from a clearly depressed author.” Unless you interviewed Harding extensively, or had a lot of real-life sources, you have no way of proving what is fact and what is fiction.”

    Get the sound right

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    You want your thesis statement to be identifiable as a thesis statement. You do this by taking a very particular tone and using specific kinds of phrasing and words. Use words like “because” and language which is firm and definitive.

    Example thesis statements with good statement language include:

    • “Because of William the Conqueror’s campaign into England, that nation developed the strength and culture it would need to eventually build the British Empire.”
    • “Hemingway significantly changed literature by normalizing simplistic writing and frank tone.”

    Know where to place a thesis statement

    Because of the role thesis statements play, they appear at the beginning of the paper, usually at the end of the first paragraph or somewhere in the introduction. Although most people look for the thesis at the end of the first paragraph, its location can depend on a number of factors such as how lengthy of an introduction you need before you can introduce your thesis or the length of your paper.

    Limit a thesis statement to one or two sentences in length

    Thesis statements are clear and to the point, which helps the reader identify the topic and direction of the paper, as well as your position towards the subject.

    Text Structures

    text structure is the framework of a text’s beginning, middle, and end. Different narrative and expository genres have different purposes and different audiences, and so they require different text structures. Beginnings and endings help link the text into a coherent whole.

    BEGINNINGS: HOOKING YOUR READER

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    Where to begin is a crucial decision for a writer. Just as a good beginning can draw a reader into a piece of writing, a mediocre beginning can discourage a reader from reading further. The beginning, also called the lead or the hook, orients the reader to the purpose of the writing by introducing characters or setting (for narrative) or the topic, thesis, or argument (for expository writing). A good beginning also sets up expectations for the purpose, style, and mood of the piece. Good writers know how to hook their readers in the opening sentences and paragraphs by using techniques such as dialogue, flashback, description, inner thoughts, and jumping right into the action.

    WHAT’S IN THE MIDDLE?

    The organization of the middle of a piece of writing depends on the genre. Researchers have identified five basic organizational structures: sequencedescriptioncause and effectcompare and contrast, and problem and solution.

    Sequence uses time, numerical, or spatial order as the organizing structure. Some narrative genres that use a chronological sequence structure are personal narrative genres (memoir, autobiographical incident, autobiography), imaginative story genres (fairytales, folktales, fantasy, science fiction), and realistic fiction genres. Narrative story structures include an initiating event, complicating actions that build to a high point, and a resolution. Many narratives also include the protagonist’s goals and obstacles that must be overcome to achieve those goals.

    Description is used to describe the characteristic features and events of a specific subject (”My Cat”) or a general category (”Cats”). Descriptive reports may be arranged according to categories of related attributes, moving from general categories of features to specific attributes.

    Cause and Effect structure is used to show causal relationships between events. Essays demonstrate cause and effect by giving reasons to support relationships, using the word “because.” Signal words for cause and effect structures also include if/then statements, “as a result,” and “therefore.”

    Comparison and Contrast structure is used to explain how two or more objects, events, or positions in an argument are similar or different. Graphic organizers such as venn diagrams, compare/contrast organizers, and tables can be used to compare features across different categories. Words used to signal comparison and contrast organizational structures include “same,” “alike,” “in contrast,” “similarities,” “differences,” and “on the other hand.”

    Problem and Solution requires writers to state a problem and come up with a solution. Although problem/solution structures are typically found in informational writing, realistic fiction also often uses a problem/solution structure.

    ENDINGS: BEYOND “HAPPILY EVER AFTER”

    Anyone who has watched a great movie for ninety minutes only to have it limp to the finish with weak ending knows that strong endings are just as critical to effective writing as strong beginnings. And anyone who has watched the director’s cut of a movie with all the alternate endings knows that even great directors have trouble coming up with satisfying endings for their movies. Just like directors, writers have to decide how to wrap up the action in their stories, resolving the conflict and tying up loose ends in a way that will leave their audience satisfied. 

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    The type of ending an author chooses depends on his or her purpose. When the purpose is to entertain, endings may be happy or tragic, or a surprise ending may provide a twist. Endings can be circular, looping back to the beginning so readers end where they began, or they can leave the reader hanging, wishing for more. Endings can be deliberately ambiguous or ironic, designed to make the reader think, or they can explicitly state the moral of the story, telling the reader what to think. Strong endings for expository texts can summarize the highlights, restate the main points, or end with a final zinger statement to drive home the main point to the audience.

    Components of an Effective Paragraph

    Every paragraph in the body of an essay consists of three main parts: a topic sentence, some supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence.  Transition words and phrases provide links between individual paragraphs, and so are important to consider, as well.

    Of these elements, the topic sentences are the most important to building a strong essay, and deserve the most attention.

    Topic Sentences

    A clear topic sentence in each paragraph will assist with essay organization. Consider writing topic sentences early in the process, while you’re working on an outline.  You can return later to fill in the rest of the paragraph.  Having these single sentences figured out early makes the rest of the essay much easier to write! 

    Devote each body paragraph of an essay to discussing only the point of its topic sentence. If something is interesting to you, but not directly related to the topic sentence, save it for elsewhere in the essay (or hang on to it for a future writing task!). This will help keep your essay focused and effective.

    Ensure that your topic sentence is directly related to your main argument or thesis.

    Make sure that your topic sentence offers a “preview” of your paragraph’s discussion. Many beginning writers forget to use the first sentence this way, and end up with sentences that don’t give a clear direction for the paragraph.

    For example, compare these two first sentences:

    Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743.

    Thomas Jefferson, who was born in 1743, became one of the most important people in America by the end of the 18th century.

    • The first sentence doesn’t give a good direction for the paragraph. It states a fact but leaves the reader clueless about the fact’s relevance. The second sentence contextualizes the fact and lets the reader know what the rest of the paragraph will discuss.

    Supporting & Concluding Sentences

    This video walks through all three components of an effective paragraph, giving good examples of what supporting statements and concluding sentences might look like.

    Transitions

    You spend so much time thinking about the ideas of an academic essay that the way these ideas connect makes perfect sense to you.  Keep in mind, though, that readers of your essay aren’t nearly as familiar with the subject as you are, and will need your guidance.

    Transitional phrases, usually found at the beginning of body paragraphs, will allow your reader to follow your train of thought.  Phrases like “likewise” or “in contrast” are key indicators as to what relationship different paragraphs have to one another. 

    • Transitions help underline your essay’s overall organizational logic. For example, beginning a paragraph with something like “Despite the many points in its favor, Mystic Pizza also has several elements that keep it from being the best pizza in town” allows your reader to understand how this paragraph connects to what has come before.
    • Transitions can also be used inside paragraphs. They can help connect the ideas within a paragraph smoothly so your reader can follow them.
    • If you’re having a lot of trouble connecting your paragraphs, your organization may be off. Experiment with different paragraph order, to see if that helps. 

    The Toulmin Model

    The following video introduces the components of a particular type of persuasive writing, The Toulmin Model. It can be useful to think about claims and evidence in your writing, and what unstated assumptions (warrants) might be influencing you.

    This image shows how conclusions are reached, using the Toulmin model of arguments.

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    In essays using the Toulmin model, warrants aren’t usually stated explicitly in writing.  They are often shared beliefs between a reader and the writer, however.

    Consider what assumptions you make about your chosen subject, that your reader likely also agrees with.  What assumptions do you have that your readers may not share?

    Self-Check

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