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Writing Resources Guided Tour

  • (1) Understanding an Assignment
  • (2) Finding a Great Topic
  • (3) Developing a Working Thesis
  • (4) Researching
  • (5) Creating an Organizational Plan
  • (6) The Rough Drafting Process: Early Global Revision
  • (7) The Drafting Process: Improving and Explaining Ideas
  • (8) The Drafting Process: Improving Organization
  • (9) Using Research Effectively
  • (10) Attention to Final Details

Step Eight: Improving and Refining Organization

If you've improved your introduction and conclusion by making some changes, or if you've expanded and refined sections in the body of your paper, it's a good idea to consider whether the changes you've made might require some slight reorganization of the paper. Re-organization as a result of revision is almost always a good sign--it means you've created a superior draft of your paper, in which you are expressing your ideas with greater depth and clarity. Looking through your paper, considering the following statements:

  1. Throughout my essay, similar ideas are grouped together. More info...
  2. My paragraphs transition well from one to the next. More info...
  3. My paragraphs are in the best possible order, one that logically develops the exploration of my topic (sometimes referred to as "having good flow"). More info...

Does your draft possess solid organization and logical development? Click on the associated "More Info..." links, or you can view all the details for this section. If you can comfortably answer "Yes" to these statements, go forward by clicking "Next."

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Reverse Outline to Bring Ideas Together

1. Using Reverse Outline to Bring Similar Ideas Together

Once you have a rough or first draft, use the reverse outline to find and bring similar ideas together that are separated from one another.

What is a reverse outline and how do I use it to bring similar ideas together?

First, go through your essay and number each paragraph. On a separate sheet of paper, write "1" in the margin for the first paragraph of your essay. Then, list that paragraph's main purposes, each in one phrase or sentence. It is important to understand that "purpose" here doesn't mean what the paragraph literally "says." It means what it "does," or why you are including it at all. One purpose sentence per paragraph is completely acceptable, but there shouldn't be more than two or three. Take a look at paragraph 1 and its reverse outline for the following student essay:

Essay (Paragraph 1):

The problem with regulating cell-phone use while driving is that no evidence exists that says that it actually causes accidents. As Phillip Fresh of the Queensburg Chronicle assures us, "There has been no legitimate study conducted on the scene of accidents that suggests that cell phones are causing them. Clearly, there is no reason to believe that they are the cause of accidents at all" (A2). While Fresh's point about the lack of empirical evidence is well taken, doesn't his comment ignore common experience? How many times have you been driving and seen a near accident caused by someone driving one-handed with a cell phone pressed against his head with the other hand? Though it is true that there have not been significant studies conducted at the scenes of accidents to determine if the driver-at-fault was on a cell phone, this doesn't mean that cell phones aren't causing multiple hundreds of accidents every day. Moreover, if an on-scene study was conducted, how many people would freely admit that they were blabbing on the phone anyway? Most would undoubtedly feel compelled to hide it. Fresh is wrong; the study wouldn't even work if it were conducted, and therefore, we shouldn't base our theories of cell phone-caused accidents on these study's existence or non-existence.

So far, this student's reverse outline looks like this:

Paragraph #1

1) Establish the case against cell-phone regulation: there is no proof
2) Emphasize common experience, I see people talk on the cell and drive all the time
3) Bring Up Problems with studies, (if conducted)

And here is the second paragraph of the essay:

Whether Phillip Fresh's concerns should be taken seriously or not is not at all crucial to the debate over whether or not cell-phone use while driving should be regulated. Mohammad Breeze, a respected reporter for the Clarktown Gazette, reports that 39 of 50 people surveyed in the greater Clarktown area report having seen an accident or near-accident caused by someone talking on a cell-phone (4). Unlike the problematic "on-scene" study that Phillip Fresh proposes, Breeze’s survey appeals to common sense. People are far more likely to report someone who nearly caused an accident than to admit that they themselves had nearly caused one.

Now this student’s reverse outline looks like this:

Paragraph #1

1) Establish the case against cell-phone regulation: there is no proof
2) Emphasize common experience, I see people talk on the cell and drive all the time
3) Bring Up Problems with studies, (if conducted)

Paragraph #2

1) Argue for Fresh’s irrelevance in context of debate
2) Use Breeze to emphasize common experience
3) Suggest that Breeze’s survey is relevant

Now that we have a reverse outline of these two paragraphs, how might we revise this piece in order to bring similar ideas together? Looking over the reverse outline, one purpose common to both paragraphs jumps out: each paragraph emphasizes the common experience of seeing people talking on cell phones who nearly cause car accidents. This purpose is shared by both paragraphs and can therefore be consolidated into the same paragraph. Have a look at the two paragraphs after the student combined these ideas:

The problem with regulating cell-phone use while driving is that no evidence exists that says that it actually causes accidents. Phillip Fresh of the Queensburg Chronicle assures us of this: "There has been no legitimate study conducted on the scene of actual accidents that suggests that cell-phones are causing them. Clearly, there is no reason to believe that they are the cause of accidents at all" (A2). While Fresh's point about the lack of empirical evidence is well taken, doesn't his comment ignore common experience?

Though it is true that there have not been any significant studies conducted on the scene of accidents to determine if the driver-at-fault was on a cell phone, this doesn't mean that cell phones aren't causing multiple hundreds of accidents every day. Mohammad Breeze, a respected reporter for the Clarktown Gazette, reports that 39 of 50 people surveyed in the greater Clarktown area report having seen an accident or near-accident caused by someone talking on a cell-phone (4). Unlike the problematic "on-scene" study that Phillip Fresh proposes, Breeze's survey appeals to common sense. People are far more likely to report someone who nearly caused an accident then to admit that they themselves have nearly caused one. Fresh is wrong; his study probably wouldn't work if it were conducted; therefore, we shouldn't base our theories of cell phone caused accidents on these study's existence or non-existence.

Now, the purpose of "emphasizing common experience" is discussed only in the second paragraph, rather than being separated into two paragraphs as it was before. But that's not all. Bringing together similar purposes in this way calls attention to the wordiness of the previous version because the same purpose was unnecessarily spread across two paragraphs. Therefore, by consolidating shared purposes you not only strengthen the organization of your essay, you also make your language more succinct and direct.

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Transitioning Between Paragraphs

2. Transitioning Between Paragraphs

Paragraphs are temperamental creatures. As writers, we want them all to communicate well, but paragraphs frequently ignore neighboring paragraphs. It is important to coax each one into communicating with its neighboring paragraphs; otherwise, your essay will be a collection of isolated paragraphs that refuse to "speak" to one another. This will cause your readers to have a hard time relating one paragraph to the next. One way to encourage communication between paragraphs is to concentrate on transitions.

This sentence is an example of a good transition; it makes the relationship between this new paragraph and the one before it clear by picking up where the previous paragraph left off; it even uses a key word, "transition," in the last sentence of the previous paragraph, and the first sentence of this one. The paragraph above concentrated on the importance of communication between paragraphs, and then built up to the idea that transitions are a good way to encourage this communication. This leaves a reader waiting to hear more about transitions, and this paragraph is now discussing them. These two paragraphs are clearly speaking to one another; the first one sets something up, and this (second) one explains that something.

Picking up directly from the previous paragraphs' last sentence is an effective way of transitioning, but it is not the only one. Unlike the last paragraph, this newest one doesn't speak to the ones before it by taking its lead directly from the last sentence of the preceding paragraph. Instead, it acknowledges the previous paragraph's main idea then looks forward by indicating, in its first sentence, that there are more ways to build effective transitions than by picking up exactly where the previous paragraph left off. In this way, this paragraph speaks to the one before it by saying it will add a new type of transition to our repertoire. The conversation between this paragraph and the one before it is therefore something like:

Paragraph Two:

Hey paragraph three, I bet you don't know how to create a really good transition by picking up directly from my last sentence, do you?

Paragraph Three:

I don't need to. I'll ingeniously indicate that I am going to add something completely new to the main idea of the essay.

We have discussed two valuable methods of transitioning in this entry, yet the key to smooth, interesting transitions is ultimately to ask yourself as you write:

  1. How do I want this first (or last) sentence to relate to its neighboring paragraph?
  2. How can I make it relevant to my main ideas?

Both of the transition methods discussed thus far are a result of asking both of these questions. To illustrate, let's ask these two questions to the final paragraph (beginning with "We have discussed") in this entry.

Say, final paragraph, how does your first sentence relate to your neighboring paragraph, and how is it relevant to the main idea of this entry?

Final Paragraph:

Well now, my first sentence clearly summarizes the main points addressed in previous paragraphs, and usefully complicates them by suggesting that there is something that they have in common. Moreover, my first sentence is relevant to this entry's main idea because it provides specific questions that writers can ask in order to better understand the purpose of this entry.

Well said. You see, even though paragraphs can be testy and reclusive at times, a little critical thought and patience on the writer's part can help them get along with one another. Not only will your paragraphs thank you, so will your readers.

On a final note, never underestimate the power of a well-placed transition word or phrase. Words such as however, as a result, in addition, in fact, conversely, similarly, finally, and many more, will help your readers see the relationship between your ideas.

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Reverse Outlining for Paragraph Order

3. Reverse Outlining for Paragraph Order: Feeling & Figuring Out "Flow"

Once you have a rough or first draft, use the reverse outline to improve your essay's flow.

What is a reverse outline and how do I use it to improve flow?

First, go through your essay and number each paragraph. On a separate sheet of paper, write "1" in the margin for the first paragraph of your essay. Then, list that paragraph's main purposes, each in one phrase or sentence. It is important to understand that "purpose" here doesn't mean what the paragraph literally "says." It means what it "does," or why you are including it at all. One purpose sentence per paragraph is completely acceptable, but there shouldn't be more than two or three.

Look over your reverse outline, and get enough distance from it so that you can picture your entire essay. Observe the outline in its entirety; let your eyes jump around from one paragraph's purpose(s) to the next—skim the surface and see if you get any initial feelings that something is misplaced: follow your guts. Go ahead and revise the outline, strike things out, add things. When adding things, don't write full paragraphs; write only condensed versions of the main ideas you wish to add. After you have given the outline this type of examination, you can return to your actual draft to delete portions, add portions, and re-arrange the order of paragraphs.

Following your guts is one way to know how to reorder things, and it's a very good way, but it won't do everything for you. So, when you feel like your essay is in need of organizational help and don't have any gut feelings to follow, use your head instead.

When you can't feel what order things should be in, perhaps you can figure it out. To do this, take out a piece of paper and cover up your completed reverse outline. Then, reveal one paragraph's main idea at a time, asking yourself each time you do so "does it make sense that this part follows the last part? Why or why not?" By moving gradually through each paragraph's main idea(s) in this way, you are emulating, in simplified form, the mental process that your readers will go through as they read your paper. However, by constructing a reverse outline, you have an intellectual edge; a writer that takes the time to move through the logical development of her paper's main ideas can gain clear insight into its underlying framework and principles of organization. We use these frameworks and organizational principles all the time without knowing it; the reverse outline is a practice that will reveal them to you.

If you go through your outline carefully and slowly in this way, you can easily detect paragraphs and main ideas that are out of place and move them to a better spot. This might require you to split up a paragraph and move only part of it, and sometimes you'll see an opportunity to move an entire paragraph and its main ideas to a new spot.

Once you've both felt and figured out your paper’s organization, as well as moved, added, and taken away what you need to, it only remains to fill in the gaps that are left by these changes. When you move stuff around, sometimes connections between thoughts are lost, and the new order of ideas may need to be tied together again in a new way. To do this final step, read through your revised essay with an eye for disruptions in flow, and insert sentences, or even short paragraphs that help your ideas relate to each other. The truly ambitious have been known to reverse outline their revision, and go through the steps above a second, or even third time in order to be sure that they have really achieved good organizational flow.

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