6.2 Organizing Ideas


This section of Ch. 6 covers the following topics:

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

Prewriting helps a writer explore possible topics and figure out what to say. But to communicate ideas to someone else, those ideas 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 about this topic?

Thesis Statement

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 creates and 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 it 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 will 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”). In our example, “should be required” is much clearer than “would be a good idea.”
  • Keep the thesis short and simple: Don’t tackle two or three ideas. 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 (don’t write “What should we do about…?”) or an announcement (don’t write “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.) The goal of an essay is to be informational and persuasive, not just belligerent. 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

Using the topic you identified in Ch. 6.1, write a thesis statement for an essay. Follow the above guidelines carefully. Your goal is to explain your position on this topic clearly and succinctly.

Although you are only writing a single sentence, this will likely take you some time to do well. Creating a good, clear thesis is the first step in producing a good, clear essay.

Write your thesis in your notebook. Figure out whether you are going to answer “Why?” or “How?” in the essay, and write that word at the end of your thesis. Submit this via email to the instructor by Friday.


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: first main point and supporting detail

Paragraph 3: next main point and supporting detail

Paragraph 4: last main point and supporting detail

Paragraph 5: conclusion

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


Example of scratch outline on mail-in voting

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 progress through 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 longer paper. The key for writers is to choose a pattern consciously, one that will best help them achieve their purpose.

Exercise 2

Now it’s time to create an outline for your essay. Your outline should end up looking like the scratch outline above, but it will take several steps to get there.

In your notebook, do the following:

  • Start with the word “Introduction” followed by your thesis. (Don’t write the actual introduction, just the word. Do write your thesis and critical question.)
  • Look at the three options for an organizational pattern listed above: chronological, emphatic, or spatial. Which pattern would best help you explain your point? Pick one. The emphatic pattern is the most common for college writing, but which one you choose is driven by what your topic is.  For example, if you decided to write about why the gym facilities at MHCC are great, you might explain how you learned to love the gym over time (chronological), or identify your three favorite pieces of equipment (emphatic), or describe the gym layout so the reader can see it (spatial).
  • Answer your critical question three times using the details you identified in Ex. 2 of Ch. 6.1. Leave a few blank lines between the three points.
    • If you chose a chronological pattern, identify three moments in time.
    • 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 parts of your topic.
    • If the pattern you chose isn’t working, now is the time to change it.
  • Add some details to each of the three points. As in the example above, 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.  (Don’t write the conclusion, just the word.)

This process will take you a couple of hours to do well. Your final product should look like the example scratch outline above.

This is the point when you figure out if the essay is going to work. Is your topic panning out?  Is your thesis clear enough? Can you support your point and do you have sufficient details? If not, go back to Ch. 6.1 and do some more prewriting. Do not proceed to Ch. 6.3 until you have a thesis and outline that are going to work.

Exercise 3

To review how to structure an essay, this exercise asks you to find the structure in an existing essay.

Read the student essay called “The Best Place to Study” by Pablo Medina, linked in Ch. 7.

Create a “reverse outline” for his essay. Dig into the essay to discover the structure: find his thesis, his main points, and his supporting points.

  • First, find the thesis statement and write it in your notebook. (Hint: It is in the introductory paragraph.) Briefly describe which technique Pablo uses in his introduction (check Ch. 5.3 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.
  • Identify which organizing structure Pablo used (chronological, emphatic, or spatial).
  • 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 a topic and the writer’s opinion on that topic.
  • An outline is a plan, a structure for the essay.
  • Chronological order is common in writing.
  • Emphatic order is most appropriate in a persuasive paper.
  • Spatial order is best for helping readers visualize something.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Write On! by Gay Monteverde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.