7.2 Organizing Ideas


This section of Ch. 7 covers the following topics:

  • developing a thesis
  • using a critical question to generate the essay content
  • building with paragraphs
  • constructing an outline
  • choosing an organizing pattern

Prewriting helps a writer explore possible topics for a paper and figure out what to say.  But to communicate ideas to someone else, those ideas have to be organized.  That is the goal of Step 2: organizing ideas by developing a thesis and an outline.

Step 2: Organizing

Organizing begins with articulating your point.  What are you going to say in this essay?

Thesis Statements

A thesis is a clear statement of the essay’s main idea.  It is the essay topic and the writer’s position or opinion on that topic.  It’s sort of like the topic sentence of a paragraph, but it’s the topic sentence for the entire essay.

Here is an example thesis:

Urban trees are key to a healthy environment for humans.  (The essay topic is “trees in the city” and the writer’s opinion is that they are crucial to human health.)

A thesis is not just the topic; it is what the writer has to say about that topic.  Each thesis states an opinion, a point.  It is not just a fact; it is the writer’s thoughts, feelings, or position on the topic.

Following are guidelines for a strong, clear thesis statement:

  • A thesis is one sentence.  The subject of the thesis is the subject of the essay.  Write it first.  (For example: “Mail-in voting…”)
  • A thesis must include an opinion, the point you will make about your subject.  Write that second.  (For example: “…should be required in every state.”)  If the thesis is simply a fact (“Americans over the age of 18 can vote.”), you have nowhere to go.
  • A good thesis should generate a “critical question,” either “How?” or “Why?”  This is the question you will answer in the body of the essay.  A good critical question for our example thesis would be “Why?”  The body paragraphs will explain why mail-in voting should be required.
  • A good thesis is clear and specific.  Avoid vague language (“interesting,” “terrible,” “good”).  Can you prove that?  In our example, “should be required” is much clearer than “would be a good idea.”
  • A good thesis is short and simple.  Make sure your position is not too broad or too narrow.  Don’t tackle two or three ideas at once.  Our example thesis does not say mail-in voting should be “encouraged and monitored”–it picks one focus: “required.”
  • A good thesis is a statement, not a question (not “What should we do about…?”) or an announcement (not “The subject of this paper is…”).
  • Be aware of your audience.  Take a stand without insulting the reader.  (“Only anarchists support mail-in voting” is unnecessarily offensive.)  If you can’t make a point without insulting people who disagree with you, you will never persuade anyone.

The job of a thesis is to generate and govern the essay.  To generate something is to cause it to be created.  To govern something is to control it.  A thesis statement first creates, then controls the essay.  The thesis is usually presented in the essay’s introductory paragraph, often as the last sentence.

Exercise 1

Create a thesis for your essay.

  • First, write down the topic you’ve chosen.
  • Then, finish the sentence by stating your opinion or position on that topic.
  • Identify the critical question (How? Why?) you intend to answer in your essay.  If the thesis doesn’t easily lead to a critical question, it needs more work.
  • Test your thesis against the guidelines above.  Be sure you can answer “yes” to all the guidelines.
  • Then, check your thesis to be sure it meets the assignment requirements.

When you finish this assignment, you should have a single, clear sentence followed by a one-word question.

Do not proceed to Ex. 2 until your thesis and critical question have been approved by the instructor.


An outline is a written plan for the essay.  Without clear organization, your reader can become confused and lose interest. 

We use the critical question generated by the thesis to create the outline.  For example:

Thesis:  Mail-in voting should be required in every state.

Critical question:  Why?

Answer:  Because it is cheaper, easier, and safer.

Those three answers become the three main points in the outline and, eventually, the body of your essay.

An outline does not have to be complicated or formal.  A short, informal “scratch” outline that lists your main points in the order you will present them will help you visualize your argument and ensure the structure is clear to a reader.

Here is a basic structure for a short essay:

  • introduction, thesis statement
  • main point, supporting details
  • main point, supporting details
  • main point, supporting details
  • conclusion

Here is an example scratch outline on the topic of mail-in voting:

  • Introduction:  quote from Stacey Abrams on barriers to voting, thesis:  Mail-in voting should be required in every state.
  • First section of the body:  less expensive (cost of running polling sites/voting machines vs. postage)
  • Next section of the body:  eliminates barriers (work conflicts, family responsibilities, disabilities, long lines)
  • Last section of the body:  safer (paper trail, eliminates voting machine interference, no health risk)
  • Conclusion:  lots of benefits, few downsides

Notice how easy it would be to turn this outline into an essay draft by simply adding explanations and details to each paragraph?

Ordering Information

Once you know what you want to say, you have to decide the best order to present the information.  There are three basic patterns to organize the body of an essay:  chronological order, emphatic order, and spatial order.

Chronological order is when events are arranged in the order they actually happen.  Chronological order is used for any topic that occurs over time, such as

  • explaining the history of an event or a topic
  • telling a story or relating an experience
  • explaining how to do or to make something

For example, an essay about the history of the airline industry would begin with its inception and progress through the essential events up to the present day.   This method uses transition words such as “then,” “after that,” and “finally.”

Emphatic order is when your points start with the least important and build to the most important argument, which comes last.  Emphatic order is best used for

  • persuading and convincing
  • ranking items by their benefit or significance
  • illustrating a problem and solution

Note:  The example outline above on mail-in voting is organized emphatically: it moves from a good reason, to a better one, to the best one.  Emphatic order is common in persuasive essays because it allows the writer to increasingly strengthen his argument.

Key transitions might be “one important reason is,” “just as importantly,” and “but the most important.”

Spatial order means explaining or describing objects as they are arranged in space.  Spatial order is best for

  • helping readers visualize something you want them to see
  • evoking a scene using the senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, sound)

For example, an essay that describes the parts of a guitar would use spatial order.  You create a picture for the reader that moves in an orderly, logical progression using clear directional signals (“to the left is…,” “above that…,” “on the back is…”)

These three organizational patterns–chronological, emphatic, and spatial–are often combined in a long paper, but usually used alone in short essays.  The key is to choose a pattern consciously, one that will best help you achieve your purpose.

Exercise 2

Create an outline for your essay.

  • Choose one of the organizational patterns listed above, the one you think will best help you explain your essay’s point.  Then, answer your critical question three (or maybe four) times.  For example, if an emphatic pattern seems to make the most sense for your essay, identify three examples and put them in emphatic order.  If chronological seems to work better, identify three events and put them in chronological order.
  • Above those points, write your thesis, critical question, and a brief note on the content of your introduction.
  • Below those points, add a brief note about how you will conclude the essay.
  • Then, below the outline, tell us which organizational pattern you chose and why.

The final outline should look like the example scratch outline above and be no longer than half a page.

Do not proceed to Ch. 7.3 until your outline has been approved by the instructor.

Outlining is how you figure out if the essay is going to work.  Does your thesis identify your point?  Does the body of the essay explain how or why the thesis is true?  Is the organizational structure you chose the best option to explain your point?   Do you have sufficient details?  If not, do more prewriting or organizing.

This process may take you a couple of hours, but the time is well spent.  It will shorten the time necessary for drafting, but more importantly: it will ensure that your essay is focused and clear.

If a writer just sits down and starts writing a draft, it is likely to be disorganized and unfocused.  The purpose of prewriting and organizing is to identify a topic, provide a clear direction, generate lots of useful details, and figure out the best organizational pattern to make your point before putting a ton of time into drafting.  With that start, writing the draft is much easier and the resulting document is clearer and more interesting.


  • A thesis statement is your topic and your position on that topic.
  • An outline is the plan for structuring your essay.
    • Chronological order is commonly used in expository writing.
    • Emphatic order is most appropriate in a persuasive paper.
    • Spatial order is best for helping readers visualize something.


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