7.3 Organizing Ideas


This section of Ch. 7 covers the following topics:

  • developing a
  • using a critical question
  • constructing an outline
  • options for organizing

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

Step 2: Organizing

Organizing begins with your purpose.  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 topic is “trees in the city” and the opinion is that they are crucial to human health.)

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

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.

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 is “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 thesis is usually presented in the essay’s introductory paragraph, often as the last sentence.

Writing Process, Step 2

Create a thesis statement for your essay using the topic you identified in Ch. 7.2.

  • First, write down the topic you’ve chosen.
  • Then, finish the sentence by stating your opinion or position on that topic.
  • Identify which 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 all the guidelines above. Is it clear and specific? Short and simple? Is it a statement rather than a question or an announcement? Is it phrased in a way that will reach a diverse audience?

Save this information for the follow-up exercise below.


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. Remember that the critical question will usually be “Why?” or “How?” 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 topic sentences of the body paragraphs. The answers to the critical question become the body of your essay.

An outline does not have to be complicated or formal. A short, informal “scratch” outline, where you list key ideas in the order you will present them, will help you visualize your argument and ensure the structure will be clear to a reader.

Here is a basic structure for a 5-paragraph essay:

Paragraph 1: introduction, thesis statement

Paragraph 2: main point, supporting detail

Paragraph 3: main point, supporting detail

Paragraph 4: main point, supporting detail

Paragraph 5: conclusion

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

  • Introduction: quote from Obama on voting, develop idea, lead to thesis: Mail-in voting should be required in every state.
  • First body paragraph: less expensive (cost of running polling places & voting machines vs. postage)
  • Second body paragraph: eliminates barriers (work conflicts, family responsibilities, disabilities, long lines; increases number who vote)
  • Third body paragraph: safer (paper trail, eliminates potential voting machine interference, no health risk during a pandemic)
  • 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

We know that the introduction comes first, the conclusion comes last, and the body of the essay is in the middle. But how do we organize the middle?

There are three basic patterns used to organize the body of an essay: chronological order, emphatic order, and spatial order.

order is when events are arranged in the order they actually happen. Chronological order is used for the following purposes:

  • 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.”

order is when your points start with the least important and build to the most important argument last. Emphatic order is best used for the following purposes:

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

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.”

order means explaining or describing objects as they are arranged in space. Spatial order is less common in college writing and best for the following purposes:

  • 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. The view must move in an orderly, logical progression, giving the reader clear directional signals (“to the left is…,” “above that…,” “on the back is…”)

This might be a good time to go back and look at the student example essays in Ch. 8.  Which organizing structures did these students use?  Why was that a good choice for their topic?

These three options–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 the writer achieve their purpose.

Writing Process, Step 2 (cont.)

Create an outline or your essay:

  • Look at the three organizational patterns listed above. Choose the pattern that will best help you explain your point.
  • Then, beneath your thesis (from Ex. 1 above), answer your critical question three times briefly, following the organizational pattern you chose and using details from your prewrites. For example:
    • If you chose a chronological pattern, identify three moments in time and list them in order of when they happened.
    • If you chose an emphatic pattern, list three examples and order them from least important to most.
    • If you chose a spatial pattern, list three physical areas of your topic.

Outlining is how you figure out if the essay is going to work. Is your thesis clear enough? Do you have sufficient details? Is the structure you chose the best option to explain your point?  If not, do some more prewriting or organizing. This process may take you a couple of hours to do well, but the time is well spent.

The final product (thesis and outline) should be no longer than half a page.  This is an outline, not a draft.

Do not proceed to Ch. 7.4 until your thesis and outline have been approved by the instructor.


  • 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 writing.
    • Emphatic order is most appropriate in a persuasive paper.
    • Spatial order is best for helping readers visualize something.


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