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Good writing has some principle of organization underlying the ideas. For example, perhaps you've been taught to move from a general statement to specific supporting ideas or from specific initial details to a more general, global conclusion. The more you write, the more ways of organizing your thoughts you'll discover.
In academic writing, professors typically look for some key elements that make the point of your paper clearer and your argument(s) easier to follow. This brief overview explains some of these organizing principles and structures as well as suggestions for how you can apply them to your own writing.
Academic writing often sets out to prove a point. Whatever unique point you have to say about a work of literature, art or music, a moment of history, a sociological study, a scientific experiment, an array of academic articles on some hot topic, or some amazing cross-disciplinary overview of a complex topic like peacemaking – that's your thesis. Crafting a good thesis can be the hardest part of your paper because you're trying to capture your big idea in a single, clear, bold statement. If your thesis is too broad or sweeping, it's hard to support and even harder to keep your writing focused. If it's too narrow, you just won't have that much to say.
Here's a simple formula for a basic thesis statement: Subject or topic + your angle or perspective on it = thesis If all you're doing is stating the topic you're writing about, it's not a thesis yet. To find a fresh angle, ask yourself questions such as the following:
Of course, not all topics lend themselves to an argument: some writing is exploratory, so you might ask something more like
One of the best ways of finding a thesis is to keep asking yourself, "So what?" until you hit upon something that really matters to you.
There are two kinds of people in the writing world: those who find an outline a useless pre-writing exercise and those who can't start writing without one. Surprise: both kinds of people can write well-organized papers. Which kind of writer are you?
Outliners tend to like having the shape of their argument laid out on paper before they begin. You look at the table of contents to find what you need in a book and appreciate the beauty of making each subtopic parallel. Creating an outline can help you see clearly where your argument needs extra support or what order makes the most sense for presenting your supporting details. Writing with an outline at hand keeps you focused as you draft – you're less likely to waste time writing two pages on a tangent that you'll just cut later if you remember that in your outline that topic is a mere subtopic of a bigger point. Professors who require outlines adore you.
Writers who don't like to outline often have a strong internal organizing process. You're more likely to flip to the index than the table of contents when you want to find info in a book. You're good at perceiving the natural, organic order of how to advance your arguments and don't feel the need to externalize this process by writing it down -- except maybe in the briefest list. It's not that you can't see the usefulness of parallel structures, but you feel constricted by what appears to be an artificially imposed hierarchy on the writing process. You know that sometimes your best ideas are found in rambling off on a tangent and don't mind going back and completely rethinking the structure of the paper after such a revelation. Professors who assign freewriting appreciate your style.
Whether you're for them or against them, sometimes you need outlines, especially for longer essays. Here are a few outlining tips:
Don't just put your ideas in order – prioritize. What are your big ideas? What are merely supporting points? Remember:
Try outlining after you've written a first draft. See whether you can outline what you've written to make sure your essay follows some kind of logical order. You may find that in outline form it's easier to see where you're getting off topic, where you need to move an entire section, or where you need more support to really make a weak point in the paper as good as the rest.
Outline a problematic paragraph while you're drafting. Sometimes you freewrite a long paragraph about something and then realize that you're trying to pack too much into one paragraph. Instead of scrambling the sentences around without a plan, jot down a mini-outline of just that section of your paper. Not only might you suddenly see how to break the paragraph into a couple of shorter ones, but you might also realize that you have a couple of different ways to organize it, depending on what you want to emphasize. When an outline can show you the consequences of your writing choices, you've really mastered the art.
"Somebody starting to write should have a solid foundation to build on . . . When I first started to write I used to do two- or three-page outlines." ~Lillian Helman
"I began [Invisible Man] with a chart of the three-part division. It was a conceptual frame with most of the ideas and some of the incidents indicated." ~Ralph Ellison
"You are always going back and forth between the outline and the writing, bringing them closer together, or just throwing out the outline and making a new one." ~Annie Dillard