SIX STEPS TO BECOMING A BETTER WRITER: #3 Pay Attention to Organization

Hands and skeletons–what could these have to do with writing? Let me explain.

You’ve done your research, gathered your ideas, identified your audience, and have a clear purpose in mind. What’s next? You begin construction. For this you’ll need the paragraph–the building block of composition. Ann Berthoff, in Forming, Thinking, and Writing (1982) suggests that a paragraph works much like a hand: “the hand is a gatherer, and it takes different shapes depending on whether it is picking up a couple of eggs, measuring sticks of spaghetti, or scooping up water.” In much the same way, the paragraph changes shape according to its subject matter and the writer’s purpose.

The writer’s perception of the shape, or logical ordering of his/her piece must come from a consideration of the rhetorical context and the purpose the piece serves. For example, in narration, or storytelling, chronological order is useful if time is significant to the elements of the piece. However, narration may be paired with description, in which the writer develops the ideas based on sensory details–what we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. Another strategy for organization is exemplification, or the use of illustrations to convey the purpose. Examples are emphasized in arguments of definition, comparisons, contrasts, classifications, process analysis and cause and effect.

A completely different way to view organizational strategies is by considering arrangement. You might organize the content from general to specific detail (or specific to general), least to most controversial (good for persuasive arguments), or least to most important (helps build tension and is referred to as emphatic order). No matter what organizational strategy you adopt, give it conscious thought. Then carefully construct your paragraphs focusing on topic sentences, transitions, unity, and cohesion.

In technical writing, the topic sentences are direct and easily located (usually the first one in the paragraph). Make sure the topic sentence announces the subject of the entire paragraph. Check each sentence within the paragraph to see if it is relevant to the subject that was announced in the topic sentence. You may find by the fifth or sixth sentence, you’ve changed the subject. If this is the case, you can revise your topic sentence, delete this sentence, move it to a more related paragraph, or develop an entire paragraph around this sentence. Your selection should be based on your purpose. By editing carefully for organization, you’ll accomplish unity in your paragraphs: one topic per paragraph.

Equally important to your reader’s ease in moving through your text is cohesion: how do the sentences and paragraphs fit together? Transitions are essential in giving your readers the clues for what’s coming next. Just as road signs are necessary to keep order among drivers, transitions keep order in your text. Transitions indicating comparison include also, in the same way, likewise, and similarly. Transitions indicating contrast include on the other hand, although, and nevertheless. There are many more transitions, but using them frequently helps your reader make the connections from one point to the next. If your writing lacks organization, your reader will leave you!

And a word about paragraph breaks–they’re important for reader engagement too. However, paragraph divisions are not absolute. In general, a paragraph is six to eight sentences long. But they can be one sentence or many sentences. Short paragraphs liven the page and can add power to a point; however, overused they can make the writing choppy and disconnected. Longer paragraphs require more from your reader and are best used for a truly committed reader (e.g., researchers in a peer-reviewed scientific journal). Keep in mind varying paragraph length and using it effectively is another tool you have as a writer.

William Strunk and E.B. White in Elements of Style (2005) suggest a writer choose a suitable design, or structure, and hold to it. All forms of composition are flexible, “but all have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and the blood. The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success” (p.31). Hands and skeletons–all about Halloween? No way. Think of them as metaphors for the organizational structure of your writing. Next week a discussion of the flesh and blood!

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