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 a thesis statement and an outline.

Step 2: Organizing

The first step in organizing is to 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 your opinion is that they are crucial to human health.)

A thesis is not just the essay’s topic; it is what you have to say about that topic, your point. Look at the following table to see the difference.

Topic Thesis Statement
The impact of music piracy on musicians Financial success as a musician is still possible despite music piracy.
The future of journalism Online newspapers will mean the end of print media.
Educational delivery systems The benefits of face-to-face learning cannot be completely duplicated in online classes.

Each thesis states an opinion. It is not just a fact; it is the writer’s thoughts, feelings, or position about 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.

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

Following are guidelines for a strong, clear thesis statement:

  • A thesis is one sentence. The subject of the thesis is the subject of your 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.”
  • Keep the thesis 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.”
  • Express the thesis as 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.

Exercise 1

Go to “Student Essays” in Ch. 8.2 and read just the first paragraph in the essays by Jennifer Steimer, Brittany McLoughlin, and Angela Godfrey.

Find the thesis statements in each and copy them into your notebook.  Then, answer the following questions:

  • Which is the best? Consider the guidelines listed above.
  • Which was the weakest? Why?


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

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 five-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 Obama on voting, thesis: Mail-in voting should be required in every state.
  • First body paragraph: less expensive
    • setting up and staffing polling places
    • expensive voting machines
    • minimal cost of mailing
  • Second body paragraph: easier
    • eliminates barriers (work schedules, family responsibilities, disabilities, travel, long lines)
    • increases number who vote, more reflective of popular opinion
    • time to evaluate and research options at home
  • Third body paragraph: safer
    • paper trail to verify vote count
    • potential for voting machine interference eliminated
    • no personal risk during an epidemic
  • Conclusion: lots of benefits, few downsides

It would be easy 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 in what order to present the information. There are three basic ways 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:

  • to explain the history of an event or a topic
  • to tell a story or relate an experience
  • to explain how to do or to make something

For example, an essay about the history of the airline industry would begin with its conception and detail the essential events up to 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

For example, an essay about registering firearms could develop several answers to “Why?” Key transitions with this pattern might be “one important reason is,” “just as importantly,” and “but the most important.”

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.

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

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

For example, an essay that describes a microscope or 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…”

These three options can be used alone or combined in a long paper. The key for writers is to choose a pattern consciously, one that will best help them achieve their purpose.

Exercise 2

Read the student example essay called “The Best Place to Study” by Pablo Medina in Ch. 8.

Create a “reverse outline” for this essay. What that means is you will dig into the essay to discover what Pablo did: find his thesis, his main points, his supporting points.

  • First, find the thesis statement and write it in your notebook. Briefly describe which technique Pablo uses in his introduction (check Ch. 6 for a list of options).
  • Read the first body paragraph, identify the topic sentence, and write it in your notebook. Briefly list the examples Pablo uses in that paragraph.
  • Do the same for paragraphs three and four.
  • Which organizing structure did Pablo use (chronological, empathic, or spatial)? Explain.
  • Look at the concluding paragraph. What does he do there?

You should end up with Pablo’s outline for his essay. Notice how smoothly his essay reads and yet we can easily deconstruct it.  That is because it is carefully and clearly built.


  • 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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