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. This thesis makes the reader ask “How?”)

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 (topic + opinion)
music piracy Financial success as a musician is still possible despite music piracy.
journalism’s future 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.

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.”
  • 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.

Exercise 1

Now it’s time to create a thesis statement for your essay using the topic you identified in Ch. 7.2.

  • Write 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.
  • Now 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?
  • And finally, does it meet the assignment requirements?

Do not proceed to the next exercise until your thesis has 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. 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. In other words, 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 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 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

For example, an essay about registering firearms could develop several answers to “Why?”, ending with the most persuasive argument. Also, 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 with this pattern 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 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. 9.

Then, create a “reverse outline” for his essay. What that means is you will dig into the essay to discover what Pablo did and how he did it.

  • First, find his thesis statement and copy it down. Briefly describe which technique Pablo uses in his introduction (check Ch. 6.3 for a list of options).
  • Read the first body paragraph, identify the topic sentence, and write it down. Then, briefly list the examples Pablo uses in that paragraph.
  • Do the same for each of the remaining body paragraphs.
  • Which organizing structure did Pablo use (chronological, empathic, or spatial)? Explain why that was a good choice for this topic.
  • Look at his concluding paragraph. What does he do there? (Review the information on writing conclusions in Ch. 6.3.)

You should end up with what amounts to Pablo’s outline. Notice how smoothly his essay reads and yet we can easily take it apart and identify the individual pieces. That is because it is carefully and clearly built.

Exercise 3

Now it’s time to create an outline for your first essay. Do the following:

  • Write the word “Introduction” followed by your thesis and the critical question it generates. (Don’t write the actual introduction. Just write your thesis and critical question.)
  • Look at the three organizational patterns listed above: chronological, emphatic, and spatial. Which pattern would best help you explain your point? Your choice should be driven by your purpose. For example, if you wrote an essay about why the college gym facilities are great, you might explain how you learned to love the gym over time (chronological), or identify your favorite pieces of equipment (emphatic), or describe the gym layout so the reader can see it (spatial).
  • Then, answer your critical question three times using details from your prewrites. Leave a few blank lines between the three points.
    • 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.
    • Important: If the pattern isn’t working, now is the time to change it!
  • Add some details to each of the three points. Don’t write full paragraphs or even full sentences, just words or phrases. This is just a plan, not the actual essay.
  • Write the word “Conclusion” at the end and perhaps a few words that indicate what you plan to say.  (Don’t write the whole conclusion.)

This process will take you a couple of hours to do well. Your final product should look like the outline you did of Pablo’s essay in Ex. 2. It should be about half a page long.

This is how you figure out if the essay is going to work. Is your topic panning out? Is your thesis clear enough? Do you have sufficient details? If not, do some more prewriting.

Do not proceed to Ch. 7.4 until you have an approved thesis and outline.


  • 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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