Organizing Your Essay:
A Better Way to Outline

P.E. ROWE

 

Perhaps the most important feature of any piece of writing is its organization. No matter how well you research your topic or how beautifully you write your sentences, all that work will mean little if your essay isn’t well organized. The reader needs to be able to follow you where you’re taking them. And in order to lead well, you should probably know where you’re going, which means charting your course in advance.


I often tell writers that writer’s block doesn’t have a chance if you have good research and a solid plan for writing. This lesson is about turning all your research into a useful plan for completing a well-ordered essay.


We’ve all come across a bad storyteller—the kind of person who goes on endlessly, and you never get the sense that the story is going anywhere. Or they jump between ideas, failing to connect the ideas in any meaningful way. This is bad, disorganized storytelling, and it’s among the commonest problems with writing, not just in college, but in the professional world as well.


Good writing moves in a logical fashion, flowing from one idea to the next in a manner that makes sense to the reader or audience. In a good story, the reader always knows what’s going on, is invested in the plot, and has a sense of where the story is headed. A good essay has a similar feel, starting with a topic of interest or importance, adding supporting ideas that inform the reader on the main topic, and it leads the reader to a conclusion that makes sense, even if it doesn’t always generate agreement on the reader’s part. Accomplishing all this is one of the most challenging aspects of writing. And failing to accomplish at least most of these things will lead to essays that fail to convince, inform, and in most cases, get high marks.


Once you’ve thoroughly researched your topic, you’re going to have a ton of information. The challenge now is presenting that information in a sensible order. Well organized writing is a question of order.


Because people can only process one word at a time, in a literal sense, your essay will always follow the same order—a straight line—left to right, from the top of the page to the bottom of the page. One way or another, you need to get all the information you’ve gathered into a straight line. The big question is how to turn a collection of seemingly disconnected ideas into a useful plan that, when completed, will be something your audience can recognize and appreciate.


You might be familiar with two common techniques that teachers often show their students to help with this process—the mind map and the outline.

 

Mind Map

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A Mind Map is a diagram that organizes concepts, around a central idea. Mind maps can be very helpful in discovering connections between related concepts from your research and grouping similar ideas together. They’re also helpful in revealing the importance of subtopics—if ideas keep popping up on your mind map, it can be a strong indication that the idea is of major importance and should take up significant space in your essay.

 
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Outline

 

Outlines are a more traditional approach to organizing ideas that seem to be going out of style. We often talk to instructors who ask students for an outline of their essay only to be met with confusion and blank stares from their students. Outlines are writing plans that most often come in the form of a bulleted list with major subtopics as headers and items to be discussed listed as bulleted items beneath these subtopics. When the outline is complete, major ideas will be listed in the order they’ll appear in the essay. What outlines do really well is proscribe an exact order or plan for how the essay will be written, following a clear linear path from left to right, top to bottom, just like the essay will read.  


Each of these tactics has its benefits, but both miss a crucial point. Order in an essay can be an entirely arbitrary thing. Grouping ideas in a mind map doesn’t really help you to tackle what order they should be presented in the essay, and ordering subtopics in an outline doesn’t ensure that you’ve ordered those subtopics in a way that will be clear, obvious, and easy to follow for your reader.


What a good essay needs, is a narrative structure—a story that it tells about the interesting ideas you’ve gathered. This is the hidden part of the essay that will keep your reader engaged and following along rather than drifting off and wishing they were doing something else. The goal when structuring an essay is that at any point in the essay, your reader should understand why you’re discussing the point at hand and how that point relates to the main topic of the essay. You’ve got a clear path and both you and the reader should be aware of it while you’re walking it.


To help you with this aspect of your writing, we’ve designed a few narrative structures for essays that should help you to accomplish this goal—to connect your ideas, not just into any order, but into an order that tells a thoughtful story about your topic.

 

Narrative Structures

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Certainly there are far more narrative structures than the four we’ll discuss here, but these four should work for quite a few purposes, and for example’s sake, we’re going to use a hypothetical research situation and describe how the same research might inform four different essays, depending on the type of narrative structure the writer adopts.


The hypothetical situation involves the question of whether a county government should adopt a plan to use a federal grant subsidy program to build a wind farm to supply power to their area. We’ve actually already shown you a mind map and a possible outline. The question of whether Calaveras County should adopt the proposed wind farm will vary depending on who is telling the story, why, and what information that writer chooses to highlight, so each of these essays will turn out quite different, even if the research being discussed is largely the same.

** Disclaimer: To our friends out in Calaveras County, the hypothetical situation used in this article for instructional purposes is entirely fictional. We have no stance on how you fine folks choose to generate your power but wish you all the luck in the world on that front : -)

 
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The Funnel: The funnel structure works for essays where there’s a clear destination or conclusion. After offering the reader a lay of the land in the introduction, it starts broad, presenting the reader a representation of the issue from a distance, zeroing in on the issue more closely with each successive section. The final layer should lead the reader to see the solution, conclusion, or perspective the writer proposes.


In the question of our hypothetical situation in Calaveras County, the writer could choose to present the benefits of green energy on a broad scale—the need for a reduction of fossil fuel usage worldwide and how the county doing its part by switching from coal to wind would yield far less pollution over the coming decades. Next, the writer could discuss the federal grant and how Calaveras County would fit into the nation’s plan to reduce emissions—issues like how the grant structure works, the feasibility and potential pitfalls of the financial structure at the state and county levels and ways the county might overcome those pitfalls. Next, the writer could look to discuss the local impacts, how the wind farm making the coal plant obsolete would make for cleaner air, water, and soil countywide, making for a less polluted local environment. The conclusion here, as you should be able to tell from the trend in the narrative, is that adopting the wind farm would be a benefit for the citizens of Calaveras County and their environment.

 
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Coin Flip: This structure might work for an essay where the conclusion isn’t clear or already decided. The idea here is to show both sides of an issue, weighing the pros and cons of the topic thoroughly. The coin flip structure sets up a clear dichotomy for your reader or audience—Side A of the topic against Side B of the topic. In addition to laying out vital background information, the introduction in this type of narrative needs to clearly inform the reader that two opposing sides will be covered, so that they can expect to build an understanding of opposing viewpoints.


In the hypothetical case of the Calaveras County wind farm, the introduction might explain the situation and then hedge, stating that there are many reasons in favor of the plan’s adoption but that the reasons to not adopt the proposal are sound as well. Then it’s simply a matter of presenting those reasons in an orderly manner. The environmental benefits to the air of discontinuing their coal plant in the first part of the essay will be balanced against the hundreds of local birds that will be struck and killed by the turbines each year. The affordability of building the plant will be countered by the considerable long-term costs of its maintenance once the grant runs out. The conclusion should either take a position that is supported by one side of the evidence—either heads or tails and why; or it should recap the most relevant points and emphasize the difficulty of the choice—the contrast between viewpoints. Remember, that if you’ve used this narrative structure and done the job well, your reader will have good reasons to adopt either position, so if you as the writer do take a position, it’s a good idea to emphasize that the conclusion isn’t obvious.


Additionally, you could adapt this structure for a proposal using one side of the coin to express the concerns of stakeholders, while proposing solutions to those concerns on the opposite side.

 
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Puzzle: A puzzle structure for an essay is a good choice when there are several subtopics that don’t necessarily seem to fit together easily or are better understood in isolation. The introduction in a puzzle should discuss the background of the main topic in a way that makes it clear that the “pieces” of the puzzle are all related to the same main point in a key way. It should also prepare the reader to consider several aspects of the topic separately; otherwise, the jumps between subtopics may seem confusing. Another useful tool that will help keep the reader oriented here is the use of strong, clear section headings that introduce each subtopic. This will help the reader to re-focus and consider each point in isolation.


This narrative structure would be a good way for concerned residents of Calaveras County to make a case against the proposed wind farm. They could discuss the major financial flaws of the proposal, the noise pollution and bird strikes, the negative impacts of land appropriation on farmers, and the problem of energy shortages during low wind periods. These topics don’t naturally fit together in isolation, but they tell a story of several issues that when pieced together offer a clear picture of how the wind farm is simply a bad choice for Calaveras County residents.

 
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Equation: For the mathematically inclined writer, the equation structure should be one that’s approachable and easy to follow for your reader. It also has the benefit of being very flexible and simple. This information, plus this information, plus this information, equals this state of being or conclusion; that’s a storyline that most any reader should be able to follow easily. Additionally, the story can change to suit the writer’s needs. If/then conditionals can be helpful in exploring hypothetical scenarios or future circumstances. And other verbal cues can help offer a simple narrative framework that tells your reader a clear and coherent story.


In the case of the proposed wind farm, a writer might choose this structure to approach the problem of windless days, discussing what is known about how communities with wind farms around the world adapt on calm days. Then the story could progress to show what a good contingency plan in Calaveras County might look like. Next the writer could explore future technologies for energy storage that would mitigate the problem of windless days, concluding with a proposal for a course of action based on all of the information presented.

 

If you like any of these narrative structures for your essay writing purposes, follow the links on this page to download each template.

Each of these four narrative structures is designed to help you as a writer to approach the difficult step of organizing your essay. As we’ve seen, organizing isn’t merely about deciding on an order to present the information you’ve gathered to your reader. It’s about determining which order tells which story about the information you think is important to highlight. The narrative structures we’ve covered are only four examples of ways you can think about shaping your research into a story your readers can follow. Feel free to adapt the elements of any of these narrative structures to fit the length or purpose of the essay you’re writing.


Instead of merely outlining an order or jumping from place to place on a mind map, adopt a narrative structure that works for your research and take your reader down a path that’s easy to follow to a place that’s well worth going. Your reader will be grateful for it.