December 2005

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Kyle Cushman

Beautiful Architecture: Organizing Ideas in Writing

By Kyle Cushman, Vermont College of Union Institute and University

A beautifully designed building is a wonder to behold. Every part adds to the whole, each detail is in the right place and the design leads the eye along a logical sequence of lines, angles, curves, materials and colors. Well-constructed writing shares these traits. Through a conscious design process, experienced writers ensure that each idea contributes to the overall meaning, ideas flow in a logical sequence, each detail is in the right place, and effective transitions provide stepping stones between ideas.

Achieving effective organization requires that the writer develop some sort of blueprint or plan to follow. What the plan looks like and at what point in the writing process the plan is developed depends on the individual writer.

Writers must also stay flexible and be open to abandoning their plan and creating a new one if necessary. Through the process of writing we refine our focus, ideas, and direction, thus the organizational plan we started with may not work once we've worked through a draft or two and gotten clearer about what we want to say and how the ideas fit together. In his book Write to Learn, Donald Murray cautions that "Many a battle is lost because the general follows the plan regardless of what happens on the battlefield. A writing plan is not an order or a binding contract; it is a sketch, a guess, a hunch, a suggestion" (130).

There are many different ways to design effective organization. Here are a variety of "plans" that writers can experiment with. It is important to encourage writers to play with different organizational strategies so that they find the ones that work best for them and for the writing project at hand. Here are some possibilities:

  1. Ye old formal outline. Formal outlines can be imposing--they have many rules, a host of numbers, letters and roman numerals and can fog the mind of some learners. However, they can be useful for linear thinkers (those orderly organizers who like to know what will be first, second, third and who like to identify various levels and sublevels of information). Formal outlines are also effective for organizing a large document such as a final paper, thesis or dissertation. Diana Hacker, in A Writer's Reference, shares a brief, straightforward explanation on creating a formal outline in her "Composing and Revising" chapter.

  2. Beginning, middle, and end. All good writing has a beginning, middle and end. For this organizational strategy, first generate a list of ideas and information for your paper. Then, on blank notebook paper, a computer, or on index cards create the categories "beginning," "middle," and "end." Copy each item from your brainstorm list into the category where it fits best. Information that summarizes or provides an overview usually fits in the beginning or the end, while specific details and examples usually belong in the middle. Finally, try numbering the items in each category in an order that makes the most sense.

  3. Index cards. After brainstorming a list of ideas, write each idea out on its own index card. Then, using a large, flat surface lay out your index cards so you can easily see them all. Play with the order of your ideas, moving the cards around like a giant puzzle until you see a logical flow. This is a great strategy for visual learners.

  4. Create headings. After doing some pre-writing or writing a rough draft, brainstorm a list of possible headings for different sections of your paper. Highlight the best headings from your list. Then write each heading at the top of its own index card. Copy the ideas, details, facts, statistics and examples that go best with each heading. Arrange the index cards so that the headings are in the best order. Now you are ready to try another draft of your paper.

  5. Pyramid flow chart. Another great strategy for visual learners. In the top center of your notebook, draw a box in which you write your thesis or main idea for the paper. Then from that box, draw arrows down into a row of boxes that contain headings for the different topics you want to cover in the paper. Below that row, flow down into a row of boxes that contain the details that support each heading. Your flow chart should look like a pyramid and be an easy map to follow for writing the paper.

  6. Natural order. This common sense approach to organizing involves identifying the type of information you are presenting and then thinking about what the most natural flow of information should be. Should your material flow from past to future? From best to worst? From problem to solution? From the cause to the effect? For example, if you are writing a narrative, it might make sense to organize the story in chronological order. Or if you are writing about the causes of global warming, you might begin by discussing each cause, and then move to the overall effect of global warming on our planet.

There are many other organizational strategies for writing offered both on the Internet and in writing books. The important thing is that writers are exposed to a number of possible strategies and, through practice, feel comfortable experimenting with different ways to organize so that they know how to find a "plan" to follow. By designing the right plan, any writer can achieve beautiful architecture.

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