Organizing an Essay
Written by Jerry Plotnick, University College Writing Centre
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Some basic guidelines
The best time to think about how to organize your paper is during the pre-writing stage, not the writing or revising stage. A well-thought-out plan can save you from having to do a lot of reorganizing when the first draft is completed. Moreover, it allows you to pay more attention to sentence-level issues when you sit down to write your paper.
When you begin planning, ask the following questions: What type of essay am I going to be writing? Does it belong to a specific genre? In university, you may be asked to write, say, a book review, a lab report, a document study, or a compare-and-contrast essay. Knowing the patterns of reasoning associated with a genre can help you to structure your essay.
For example, book reviews typically begin with a summary of the book you're reviewing. They then often move on to a critical discussion of the book's strengths and weaknesses. They may conclude with an overall assessment of the value of the book. These typical features of a book review lead you to consider dividing your outline into three parts: (1) summary; (2) discussion of strengths and weaknesses; (3) overall evaluation. The second and most substantial part will likely break down into two sub-parts. It is up to you to decide the order of the two subparts—whether to analyze strengths or weaknesses first. And of course it will be up to you to come up with actual strengths and weaknesses.
Be aware that genres are not fixed. Different professors will define the features of a genre differently. Read the assignment question carefully for guidance.
Understanding genre can take you only so far. Most university essays are argumentative, and there is no set pattern for the shape of an argumentative essay. The simple three-point essay taught in high school is far too restrictive for the complexities of most university assignments. You must be ready to come up with whatever essay structure helps you to convince your reader of the validity of your position. In other words, you must be flexible, and you must rely on your wits. Each essay presents a fresh problem.
Avoiding a common pitfall
Though there are no easy formulas for generating an outline, you can avoid one of the most common pitfalls in student papers by remembering this simple principle: the structure of an essay should not be determined by the structure of its source material. For example, an essay on an historical period should not necessarily follow the chronology of events from that period. Similarly, a well-constructed essay about a literary work does not usually progress in parallel with the plot. Your obligation is to advance your argument, not to reproduce the plot.
If your essay is not well structured, then its overall weaknesses will show through in the individual paragraphs. Consider the following two paragraphs from two different English essays, both arguing that despite Hamlet's highly developed moral nature he becomes morally compromised in the course of the play:
In Act 3, Scene 4, Polonius hides behind an arras in Gertrude's chamber in order to spy on Hamlet at the bidding of the king. Detecting something stirring, Hamlet draws his sword and kills Polonius, thinking he has killed Claudius. Gertrude exclaims, "O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!" (28), and her words mark the turning point in Hamlet's moral decline. Now Hamlet has blood on his hands, and the blood of the wrong person. But rather than engage in self-criticism, Hamlet immediately turns his mother's words against her: "A bloody deed - almost as bad, good Mother, as kill a king, and marry with his brother" (29-30). One of Hamlet's most serious shortcomings is his unfair treatment of women. He often accuses them of sins they could not have committed. It is doubtful that Gertrude even knows Claudius killed her previous...
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