Organizing your paper can be a daunting task if you begin too late, so organizing a paper should take place during the reading and note-taking process. As you read and take notes, make sure to group your data into self-contained categories. These categories will help you to build the structure of your paper.
Take, for example, a paper about children's education and the quantity of television children watch. Some categories may be the following:
- Amount of television children watch (by population, age, gender, etc.)
- Behaviors or issues linked to television watching (obesity, ADHD, etc.)
- Outcomes linked to television watching (performance in school, expected income, etc.)
- Factors influencing school performance (parent involvement, study time, etc.)
The list above holds some clear themes that may emerge you as read through the literature. It is sometimes a challenge to know what information to group together into a category. Sources that share similar data, support one another, or bring about similar concerns may be a good place to start looking for such categories.
For example, let's say you had three sources that had the following information:
- The average American youth spends 900 hours in school over the course of a school year; the average American youth watches 1500 hours of television a year (Herr, 2001).
- "According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), kids in the United States watch about 4 hours of TV a day - even though the AAP guidelines say children older than 2 should watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming" (Folder, Crisp, & Watson, 2005, p. 2).
- "According to AAP (2007) guidelines, children under age 2 should have no screen time (TV, DVDs or videotapes, computers, or video games) at all. During the first 2 years, a critical time for brain development, TV can get in the way of exploring, learning, and spending time interacting and playing with parents and others, which helps young children develop the skills they need to grow cognitively, physically, socially, and emotionally" (Folder, Crisp, & Watson, 2005, p. 9).
With these three ideas, you might group them under this category: Amount of television children watch.
Each of these source quotations or paraphrases supports that category. For each group of information, repeat this process to group similar categories together. Then you can move on to order the information you gather.
Having a lot to write about a topic can be almost as frustrating as not knowing what to say. In both cases, you’re trying to figure out what pieces of information belong and how they fit together. Strategies for figuring out what to include are similar to those involved in brainstorming and generating ideas.
It’s important to begin the process (of composing) early—this leaves time for reading. Not only does reading help us think about a topic, but it can help you decide what is important to include in your outline, and finally, your draft.
Writing your ideas down
Sometimes the best way to get organized is to be able to stand back from your ideas and think about them. Once you understand the assignment and have done enough research, you can create a list, or a web, or a freewrite, of ideas. Having all the pieces in front of you can help you decide what to do with them. You can do this on paper or even with index cards so you can move things around more easily.
Making your ideas work together
Sort the ideas you do have. Do some of these ideas seem to be making very similar points? Could one be used as a main idea while others might be examples? If you can create categories, ask yourself: in what way might the categories be related? This can help you decide which to talk about first, second, third, and so on. Keep in mind the overall point you want to make, your argument, or your thesis. Are your categories ordered in a way that will allow your content to build and ultimately accomplish your goal in writing? Creating an outline is helpful, even if your outline looks like a detailed (ordered—ordered is key) list.
Be ready to leave out some topics. When we have a lot to say about something we can easily get off track. Writing about pet ownership could include things like what kind of pet one should buy, the best training strategies, how a having a pet could influence your social life. All these things are related, but including them all in one paper would be overwhelming. Select the pieces that fit together best, and save the other points for a different piece of writing.
Revising your ideas
After you’ve finished a draft, be sure to seek feedback. After completing the piece, you might be too close to it to see how your ideas are working together. You might need to rearrange ideas, or even add/cut something, in order to fully develop your piece.
One revision strategy we often use to work on organization is the “reverse outline.” To do this, take your draft and write a brief summary of each paragraph, either in the margins or on a separate page. This is a quick and easy way to see how your draft moves from one idea to the next.
What can the Writing Center do to help?
Writing Center consultants are available to help with any stage of the writing process. We can help you to identify the different points you have in response to a prompt and then sort them out. We can also talk to you about what you think the most important ideas are and how that relates to the other information you are considering including in your writing. Finally, for this kind of concern, we can help you develop an outline to write from, or give you feedback specifically regarding organization.