Generating ideas is one thing, organizing them is a whole other challenge. Once you have your topic picked out, you need to figure out how you want to approach it. Often the assignment will give you clues for how to organize your paper. For example, the assignment might ask you to make a comparison or first to define and then to apply a concept. When you are writing to address a competence statement, look at the criteria for the competence statement. Often, these criteria set out what should be the major sections of your paper. You can find three examples of how to turn competence criteria into a preliminary outline here.
Draft Your Thesis Statement
A good way to start thinking about organization is to draft your thesis statement. Your thesis statement, usually the last sentence of the opening paragraph, is the sentence that explains your position to the reader. Choosing your position is not just as simple as picking a side, i.e. in a paper about illegal immigration, stating that you are "for" or "against" an open borders policy. Instead, you have to decide how you are going to justify your position. A good thesis should
Take a clear, arguable position -- this means reasonable people could disagree about your claim. There is no point in spending all of your time arguing for something with which you know most people already agree.
Be focused and specific -- if you can imagine someone writing a book to argue your thesis, narrow it
Indicate the overall structure of your paper – your thesis should give your readers an idea of the overall structure of your paper. In this way, your thesis acts as a sort of road map, setting the reader’s expectations for the journey on which your paper will take them. Sometimes students think it is better to surprise readers with the direction of their paper. This is almost always a mistake that leaves readers feeling toyed with at best or thinking that you do not know what you are doing at worst.
Start with a hypo-thesis or working thesis. This is your idea of what your thesis will be. However, let your thesis develop in response to what you discover in your process of thinking, researching, and writing. As you work on your paper, keep trying out ways of stating your thesis to yourself, your friends, your peers and your teacher.
Bedford/St. Martin's online companion to Diane Hacker's A Writer's Reference has exercises to help you learn how to write effective thesis statements. Purdue University’s “Writing a Thesis Statement” gives general thesis statement tips as well as tips for how to write a thesis statement for analytic, expository and argumentative essays. Indiana University’s “How to Write a Thesis Statement” includes hints for how to generate a thesis when your topic is and when it is not assigned. It also discusses why thesis statements are important and tells how to distinguish strong from weak ones.
Get familiar with common argument strategies
Cause and effect, comparison, problem solution, classification, definition – these are some of the most common strategies used to build arguments and each suggests a specific organization for your writing. Learning effective argument strategies will allow you to make the best use of your information and present your position clearly.
Outlining is one method of organizing your ideas before you write. Keep in mind that there are many different ways to outline. Experienced writers almost always use outlines of some sort before they begin, but not all of them bother to write formal outlines.
Tips for Making an Outline:
The more specific your outline, the easier it will be to draft your paper.
Your outline does not need to be formal or precise. It should help you get a picture of how your argument is developing.
Most importantly, once your outline is done, you do not have to stick to it. As you begin writing, your understanding of the topic will grow and change. Allow your new realizations to inform your writing and do not cling rigidly to your outline.
For an excellent guide to creating a written outline, check out Indiana University's page on “Using Outlines.”
Mapping is a good way to organize as well as brainstorm ideas. It is particularly good for relational thinkers – those who tend to think about connections between ideas.
If you tend to be very organized and a logical thinker, you might want to use note cards. Use a different note card for each idea or quote from a source. Then, you can arrange them in a logical order for your paper. You can do this with a pen and traditional note cards or by cutting and pasting in a document on your computer. Be sure to have a system for distinguishing your ideas and words from those of your source.
At this stage, your research should be focused on finding support for your thesis and main points as well as counter arguments and objections to your points that you will need to be able to address. For some assignments, your research will be limited to looking over the course readings and your class notes. In other cases, you will need to do additional research.
SNL faculty member Ty Kahdeman has just published his first book, Social Conflict & Educational Change. In this interview, Ty discusses what he has figured out about research and writing. In the interview, Ty mentions a couple of tools he uses to help him manage his research and writing process. Here they are:
Talking out your paper with others can help you discover organizational links within the material. When you start talking, you have to arrange your ideas in some order to present them. Try telling the story of your paper in a few different ways and see which order seems to work best.
Listing is really an informal way of outlining. If the idea of an outline makes you nervous, start with a list. Write down the points you want to address and then rearrange them into a logical order. Have a way to distinguish main ideas from supporting ones.
Just Start Writing
Many writers have a hard time planning their paper before they write. If this is the case for you, go ahead and try writing your paper. This draft is sometimes referred to as a “zero” or “preliminary” draft. It is not a first draft because you are using this draft to collect and organize your ideas. As such, do not worry about the details like sentence structure and grammar. Keep in mind that your goal for this draft is to explore your ideas and work out the organization of your paper. Once you have written this draft, go back and construct an outline of what you have written. Use this outline to decide where you need to add, delete or rearrange your ideas.