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When we talk about effective writing, we often think first about elements like word choice, grammar and mechanics, and content or evidence. But a really important part of effective writingand effective thinking, toois clear, logical organization.
Maybe an analogy will help here. I know where every tool and ingredient is in my kitchen, and I can cook pretty efficiently. When I begin a recipe, I bring out all the ingredients, measure them, and line them up in the order in which I'll use them. Even complicated recipes seem fairly easy once I have everything laid out, and the organization gives me some sense of control.
In the chaos of my garage, on the other hand, I don't know where anything is, and I'll leave a faucet dripping for a week because I don't want to hunt down a screwdriver or a wrench. I find it hard even to imagine more complicated projects. My office looks like a shambles, tooand I've wasted a lot of time looking for a book or document that I know is here somewhere. Thinking and acting are both harder when things are disorganized.
The same principle affects you and me as writers and readers. When things are laid out in some sort of order, we can work with them more easily. If we can impose some kind of order on information, the information is easier to talk about, easier to understand, and easier to remember. If you choose a clear, recognizable pattern (for a single paragraph, and also for a whole essay), you find it easier to select details and choose transitions, and you also help your reader discover relationships that connect things, that make things seem more coherent.
Humor me for a moment and agree that organization is really desirable, both in the process of writing and in the product of writing. The remaining problem is figuring out how to create or impose that organization.
My garage is such a mess that I can't see beyond the clutter, but other people have neat garages, so I know a clean garage is possible. I just need to choose some principle of organization.
I could start by putting all the lawn and garden stuff on the left wall and all the house maintenance stuff on the right wall. Then I could arrange the two sidesmaybe all the big stuff (rakes, mower, ladder, tiller, power saw) closer to the garage door, and smaller stuff nearer to the far wall. Or I could arrange everything in alphabetical order, hanging or standing the stuff clockwise from the left wall, around the back, and then back along the right wall. Or I could put supplies on one wall, power tools on another, and manual hand tools on the third. Or I could have a section for gardening, a section for lawn care, a section for exterior house maintenance, and another for interior house maintenance. Maybe I could arrange them in order of frequency of use (if I ever used any of it . . .). Actually, any of those principles of order would help me find stuff in my garageI just have to choose one principle and impose it.
It's the same with writing. With any given group of ideas and details, you might use any of a number of principles of organization, and any one of them would help you and your reader. Some will be better than others, of course (I really can't see alphabetizing the tools and supplies in my garage, even though it would make them easier to find later). The main trick to imposing organization is to know some options and to choose one.
[By the way, another similarity between organizing my garage and organizing writing is the need for some motivation. I don't want to organize my garage, because I don't want to do any work around the house to begin with. Leaving the place a mess suits me fine. If I never wanted to write or talk or think, I wouldn't need to deal with organizing ideas or details. Give some thought to your own motivation as you think about this stuff.]
In A Writer's Reference, Diana Hacker talks about "patterns of organization" (section C4-c, pp. 26-31). She identifies these as
|examples and illustrations||narration||description|
|process||comparison and contrast||analogy|
|cause and effect||classification and division||definition|
But these are not exclusively patterns of organization. As Hacker herself says, these patterns are "sometimes called methods of development." Randall Decker uses the same patterns to group essays in our reader, and he calls them "patterns of exposition." A slightly more formal term you may run across is "rhetorical modes." These patterns (or methods or modes) are partially patterns of organization, and partially patterns of developmentthat is, sometimes they help you organize content; other times they help you find content.
Some of these rhetorical modes do imply basic patterns for organizing information. Underlying organizational patterns seem particularly clear in comparison & contrast [you can look at the online discussion of comparison and contrast to see its basic organizational patterns]; in process [do this, then do this, then do this; or this happens, then this happens, then this happens]; and in cause & effect [this happens, then (as a result) this happens]. Organization is also imposed by definition [narrowing groups of meanings, from the broad class to which the term belongs, to the narrower groups, to the individual distinguishing characteristics], and in most narration [this happened, then this happened, then this happened].
I think you can develop a more flexible sense of organization if you also look at some patterns that are more exclusively patterns or principles of organization. You should understand, though, that these four broad principles have many variations, that they sometimes overlap with patterns of development or exposition, and that good writing sometimes combines different methods.
In chronological order or time order, items, events, or even ideas are arranged in the order in which they occur. This pattern is marked by such transitions as next, then, the following morning, a few hours later, still later, that Wednesday, by noon, when she was seventeen, before the sun rose, that April, and so on.
Chronological order can suit different rhetorical modes or patterns of exposition. It naturally fits in narration, because when we tell a story, we usually follow the order in which events occur. Chronological order applies to process in the same way, because when we describe or explain how something happens or works, we usually follow the order in which the events occur. But chronological order may also apply to example, description, or parts of any other pattern of exposition.
Another principle of organization is spatial order. In this pattern, items are arranged according to their physical position or relationships. In describing a shelf or desk, I might describe items on the left first, then move gradually toward the right. Describing a room, I might start with what I see as I enter the door, then what I see as I step to the middle of the room, and finally the far side. In explaining some political or social problem, I might discuss first the concerns of the East Coast, then those of the Midwest, then those of the West Coast. Describing a person, I might start at the feet and move up to the head, or just the other way around. This pattern might use such transitions as just to the right, a little further on, to the south of Memphis, a few feet behind, in New Mexico, turning left on the pathway, and so on. Spatial order is pretty common in description, but can also apply to examples, to some comparisons, some classifications [the southern species of this bird . . . ; rhinos in Southeast Asia . . .], some narrations [meanwhile, out on the prairie ], and other forms of exposition as well.
A third common principle of organization is climactic order or order of importance. In this pattern, items are arranged from least important to most important. Typical transitions would include more important, most difficult, still harder, by far the most expensive, even more damaging, worse yet, and so on. This is a flexible principle of organization, and may guide the organization of all or part of example, comparison & contrast, cause & effect, and description.
A variation of climactic order is called psychological order. This pattern or organization grows from our learning that readers or listeners usually give most attention to what comes at the beginning and the end, and least attention to what is in the middle. In this pattern, then, you decide what is most important and put it at the beginning or the end; next you choose what is second most important and put it at the end or the beginning (whichever remains); the less important or powerful items are then arranged in the middle. If the order of importance followed 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, with 5 being most important, psychological order might follow the order 4, 3, 1, 2, 5.
- Still other principles of organization based on emphasis include
- general-to-specific order,
- specific-to general order,
- order of frequency,
- order of familiarity, and so on.
A fourth broad principle of organization is called topical order, and this is sort of a catchall pattern. It refers to organization that emerges from the topic itself. For example, a description of a computer might naturally involve the separate components of the central processing unit, the monitor, and the keyboard, while a discussion of a computer purchase might discuss needs, products, vendors, and service. A discussion of a business might explore product, customer, and location, and so on. Topical order, then, simply means an order that arises from the nature of the topic itself. Transitions in this pattern will be a little vaguethings like another factor, the second component, in addition, and so on.
I'm not sure any single list can identify all of the different logical ways of organizing information. You may have forms in your workplace that impose a certain order on how an event or action is reported. Many people trying to persuade others to change policy or behavior often examine the issue in the order of need or problem first, then the benefits of the change, then the mechanics or ease of implementing the change. You may see a question-answer pattern, a problem-solution pattern, or sometimes a solution-problem pattern. You will also see (and use) combinations of patterns as your ideas and purposes become more complex.
You do need to see, though, that imposing order on information makes the information easier to talk about, easier to understand, and easier to remember. If you choose a clear, recognizable pattern (on the level of the single paragraph, and also on the level of the whole essay body), you guide yourself in selecting details and choosing transitions, and you also guide your reader in discovering relationships that connect things, that make things seem more coherent. [See the section on Transitions.]
Update | Sept. 2012: We’ll be exploring the new Common Core State Standards, and how teaching with The Times can address them, through a series of blog posts. You can find them all here, in the lesson plan category “Common Core.”
Last summer we took our first stab at thinking about how the Common Core Standards might apply to what we do on The Learning Network.
In that post, we offered suggestions for literacy strategies that we know work well with “informational text” — a category that includes pretty much everything The Times publishes every day.
Now we’d like to elaborate on that with more ideas for helping students understand common expository “text structures” like cause and effect, compare and contrast and problem-solution. These three, especially, are such staples of journalism that you can find multiple examples in every day’s paper.
Below, we’ve pulled out recent, student-friendly Times examples — in both print and multimedia — that illustrate each. We’ve also included a list of “signal words” commonly used in each. (A list borrowed, in part, from the work of Stephanie Harvey.)
Of course, the Times examples we include here are sophisticated pieces of writing. Just as it is impossible to find real-world, professional versions of that schoolroom classic, the five-paragraph-essay (the one with the thesis as the final line of the first paragraph, and topic sentences neatly heading each of the three body paragraphs), these pieces similarly resist a lockstep outline. Some may even cross categories. But each can illustrate for students how well a basic structure can work to lay out complex information.
After you’ve read a few from each category, try finding your own. We invite students and teachers to post more Times examples for each in the comment section below.
Cause and Effect
Much of journalism involves tracking the ripple effects of big news events or societal trends.
For instance, take a look at the paper any day and you’ll find stories in every section about the continuing chain of effects of the dismal global economy. Earlier this year, The Times was full of stories about the effects of the Japanese tsunami and nuclear crisis, and more recently journalists have tracked the spread, and effects, of Occupy Wall Street.
As students read the pieces we’ve chosen, they might use or adapt our simple graphic organizer — or create their own.
Signal Words and Phrases
- for this reason
- in order to
- as a result
- due to
- for this reason
- on account of
Times Print Examples
After Lean Acorn Crop in Northeast, Even People May Feel the Effects
How does a dearth of acorns this year lead one scientist to predict both that traffic collisions will rise and that 2012 will be “the worst year for Lyme disease risk ever”?
The Lasting Shadow of Bernie Madoff
“…for those he ensnared, the Madoff story drags on”: How Bernie Madoff, who was arrested three years ago this week, has changed the lives of his victims, family and trustees.
Time for a Vacation? Climate Change and the Human Clock
How climate change over the last thirty years has affected attendance at the national parks — and how it could influence leisure activities, from ski trips to leaf-peeping to bird watching to ice-cream-eating, in the future.
In Tough Times, a Boom in Cremations as a Way to Save Money
“All but taboo in the United States 50 years ago, cremation is now chosen over burial in 41 percent of American deaths, up from 15 percent in 1985, according to the Cremation Association of North America. Economics is clearly one of the factors driving that change.”
Rough Times Take Bloom Off a New Year’s Rite, the Rose Parade
The sputtering economy and municipal budget cuts are presenting new problems for the Tournament of Roses and the float industry.
A Message on Every Arm
Why the chic are carrying humble cloth tote bags this season.
Times Multimedia Examples
Graphic | How Shifting Plates Caused the Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan
Graphic | It’s All Connected: An Overview of the Euro Crisis
Compare and Contrast
Articles and multimedia that compare two or more things can be found daily in The Times, whether it’s via a chart comparing the new iPhone to its rivals, or an architecture review that contrasts the two new baseball stadiums in New York City.
Our Venn diagram graphic organizer might come in handy, either for taking notes while reading or for planning your own piece.
Signal Words and Phrases
- in comparison
- by contrast
- on the other hand
- on the contrary
- as opposed to
Times Print Examples
Two New Baseball Palaces, One Stoic, One Scrappy
A 2009 architecture review comparing the two new baseball stadiums in New York City, Yankee Stadium and Citi Field.
Fire and Ice
A recent Op-Ed by Maureen Dowd compares Newt Gingrich with President Obama.
India Ink | Who Wants to Shop in a Big Box Store, Anyway?
“Let’s compare the American big-box shopping experience to shopping in urban India,” invites this blog post, a particularly simple and clear example of this kind of writing.
An article comparing Stieg Larsson’s novel “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” with the forthcoming film version by David Fincher. (This is just one of many Times examples in which an original literary piece is compared with the film or theatrical version. To find more, use Times search to read about works of literature you’re teaching.)
Graphic | A Smartphone Face-Off Apple iPhone 4S vs. Samsung Galaxy S II
Slide Show | Vamps, Crooks and Killers to compare with A Rogues’ Gallery
Graphic | Comparing Internet Speeds Across the Nation
Problem and Solution
Every day in The Times there are articles that identify a problem of some kind and report on an innovative solution. In fact, one whole Times blog, called Fixes, is entirely devoted to reporting on solutions to social problems and why they work.
Of course we have a basic graphic organizer for this text type as well — to use as is, or as a jumping-off point for your own version.
Signal Words and Phrases
- as a result
- in order to
- so that
Times Print Examples
Monks Embrace Web to Reach Recruits
“The Benedictine monks at the Portsmouth Abbey in Portsmouth, R.I., have a problem. They are aging — five are octogenarians and the youngest will be 50 on his next birthday — and their numbers have fallen to 12, from a peak of about 24 in 1969.” Read about how these monks have taken to the Internet to solve it.
A Hard Turn: Better Health on the Highway
How can the trucking industry encourage drivers to exercise and eat right on the road?
Fixes | The Power of Positive Coaching
“…today’s youth coaches often struggle to provide sound, evidence-based, and age-appropriate guidance to players.” Fixes describes one solution.
Fixes | An Electronic Eye on Hospital Hand-Washing
“Hospitals do impossible things like heart surgery on a fetus, but they are apparently stymied by the task of getting health care workers to wash their hands.” What can they do to change that culture?
Times Multimedia Examples
Interactive | Lunch Line Redesign
Slide Show | 10 Days in a Carry-On
Interactive | The 2010 Year in Ideas