Discovering Ideas Handbook

 2.3   Structure the Essay

A well written first draft of an essay will probably not be very well organized. In writing your first draft, you should be trying to get your ideas down on paper, not stopping to put them in order. So one of the first tasks you face in revising the essay is to look closely at the body of the essay and try to decide if it moves, that is, if the reader will feel a sense of progress in going through the essay, will have a sense of getting somewhere. A good essay isnít just a bunch of good paragraphs; it doesnít start and stop at random; it moves in one direction. So one of your first tasks in revising your essay is to see what the overall design of the body of the essay is. If you are not used to revising your writing, and sometimes even if you are, this will be challenging. In the beginning, we seem to want to revise small things, to focus on individual paragraphs or sentences, even words. This is the equivalent of accretion and tuning. It is easier. It doesnít require the time and concentration that restructuring does. But it is also backwards. It doesnít make any sense to revise the parts before revising the whole because your revision of the whole may change the parts. Donít look up the spelling of the difficult words in a paragraph until you are sure that paragraph is going to be in the finished essay. You canít evaluate the transitions that lead the reader into and out of the paragraph until you are sure what comes before and after that paragraph. So begin by thinking about the overall design.


2.3.1    Reflect on the relationship of your thesis statement and your draft. 

2.3.2    Look at the way the main parts of the body are connected.

2.3.3.  Look at the way your paragraphs begin and end.

2.3.4    Look for gaps.

2.3.5    Reorganize and rewrite your essay from the top down.


2.3.1    Reflect on the relationship of your thesis statement and your draft. 

The most basic tool to use in revising the overall design of your essay is the thesis statement. Here you can profit a great deal from peer review. If readers of your working draft come up with a thesis statement that is significantly different from yours that probably means that your essay is not clearly saying what your thesis statement says. If you have been away from the essay for a couple of days and read it aloud, the first question you should ask is what the overall point of the essay you have written seems to be. Write it down, just as you would if you were peer reviewing someone elseís essay. Then compare it with your thesis statement.

If your thesis statement does not fit your essay perfectly, the next step should usually be to revise your thesis statement to make it fit what you find yourself saying in the essay. This isnít always true. There are times when you recognize that your thesis really does come closer to what you want to say and you need to revise your essay to match it. But more often you will discover what you really want to say while writing your draft and see that you want to say something more or something different than what you said in the thesis statement. Avoid the mistake of assuming you are somehow locked in to the thesis statement you wrote before you wrote your draft.

2.3.2    Look at the way the main parts of the body are connected. 

Some writers like to outline the essay even before writing the first draft. Some donít. I think this is basically a personal preference. Some writers, myself included, find that trying to write an outline is too restrictive and that ideas emerge in the process of writing. But even those of us who donít like to outline before writing a first draft can often profit from making a rough outline after writing a draft. One way to do this is just to jot down the topic sentence of each paragraph in order. This provides an informal outline of the major ideas in the essay. One advantage of this procedure is that it makes you look at your paragraphs to see if they hold together. But the main point is to see how the essay holds together. Are your paragraphs in a reasonable order? Does one lead to the next? Or do you seem to be jumping from one point to the next? Is material missing? Are questions unanswered. Using this rough outline, you may be able to see more clearly if you are really developing your thesis.

2.3.3    Look at the way your paragraphs begin and end.

Does one paragraph lead into another?  Does each paragraph answer questions that emerged from the last, or do some paragraphs seem to be just changing the subject?  You may, of course, change the subject, or appear to.  You may want to get the reader's attention by introducing surprising or confusing information, that you can then explain.  That's fine.  But make sure when you break away from a logical sequence in your essay that you do so on purpose, for a reason.  What you need to look for in revision is accidental and unintended breaks in the flow of the essay that simply distract or confuse the reader and don't help you to move toward your thesis.

2.3.4    Look for gaps.  

Are there places where you seem to jump from one point to another, leaving out the connection between the two?  Sometimes when a paragraph seems to take up a completely different subject, there is a connection in your mind that you haven't written down on the page.  Are there explanations and connections that a reader needs but that you have omitted because they were obvious to you?  Gaps can be between paragraphs or within them.  Or they can be parts of your thesis that just don't show up in the essay.

2.3.5    Reorganize and rewrite your essay from the top down.  

If your paragraphs need to be moved around, settle on the order you are going to put them in before you rewrite them.  If you need to add new material, decide where it will go before you begin to write it.  If you need to rewrite your thesis statement, do that before you rewrite the essay.  It is easier to start revising by inserting a sentence where you see you need one and correcting errors in your paragraphs.  But that wastes your time.  You will never be able to write a paragraph well until you know what comes before it.  So look at the overall organization of your ideas first, and then work your way down to the detail work.  


2.4    Support Your Claims


Copyright © 2000 by John Tagg

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