Organizing Ideas

Photo of sticky notes, colored pens, and markers scrambled on table. Photo by Frans Van Heerden (Canva).Organizing your ideas and structuring your paper are difficult tasks no matter the field. Even when you have plenty of ideas, fitting them into one cohesive, unified structure within your paper can be a daunting task—especially when you realize that papers can be structured in numerous different ways that are affected by the genre and the communicative goal(s) of the paper.

If you’re having trouble getting started and not sure what structure is best, remember that the organizational choices you make during an initial rough draft don’t have to be the same as in your final draft: your structure and connections between ideas are likely to change as you write and revise.

Genre Conventions

To begin, it’s helpful to think about the genre and conventions for your paper. For example, you probably would not include an explicit ‘Methods’ section in a History paper—though you might include a footnote discussing a type of source you examined. For example, you can contrast the general structures of humanities and science papers:

Humanities Analytic Paper Scientific Research Report
Introduction Introduction
Discussion / Support Literature Review
Counterclaim / Objection Methods
Conclusion / Restatement Results

Knowing the genre of your paper is an important first step in beginning to organize your ideas. If you are unsure about the genre of your paper or its conventions, there are a number of steps you can take:

  • Check the assignment instructions/rubric. Rubrics can range from guided to exploratory in their expectations of structure, be it a detailed list of each part of your paper or a few questions for you as the writer to explore. In either case, referring to the rubric can often set you off in a good direction when it comes to organizing your ideas.
  • Check your class materials (like lecture slides). These materials may have some hint as to the structure expected for the type of paper you are writing.
  • Find a model. Your instructor may have shared exemplary texts from prior students, or you might be able to do an internet search to find a similar assignment or genre.
  • Ask your instructor. You might feel awkward about asking, but there is nothing wrong with asking your instructor for clarification on structural expectations for a paper—especially if you do not have much prior experience with the genre.
  • Visit the Writers Workshop. We have a diverse group of consultants, and even if we do not have a consultant with the same major as you, we can likely still help you puzzle out what exactly might be expected for the structure of your paper. Check out our “Meet the Staff” page to learn more about our consultants.

Communicative Goals

Even within the examples above, you’ll find a great deal of variety in organizational style. It’s therefore important to consider not only the genre in which you are writing but also the purpose of your paper. To help pin down the purpose of your paper, consider questions like:

  • What ideas are you trying to convey in your paper? How might you best convey them to the reader?
  • What does your reader need to know to understand your ideas?
  • What can you assume the reader will know already, before reading your paper?

After considering your paper’s purpose, you can begin to map out the structure. Start at the level of sections or paragraphs and consider the relationships between and within those sections. Most writing incorporates common structural patterns like chronological, analytical, simple to complex, general to specific, most important to least important, cause and effect, or pro and con. The more complex and lengthy your writing, the more likely you are to make use of multiple patterns

Above all, keep in mind that writing is about communication: How can you best structure your paper to meet both the genre and assignment expectations while communicating effectively with the reader? Would condensing your claim(s) improve flow between ideas? Or would expanding your discussion make your paper stronger? How about switching the placement of two paragraphs? Or rephrasing an idea? By reflecting on these questions, you can discover which structure might be best for your paper.

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