Composition 03: Organizing a Writing Plan




While generating ideas is a crucial step in the Writing Process, it is only a beginning, a gathering of raw materials.  For a piece of writing to be truly effective, it must be planned out carefully, and executed according to that plan. 


Think about how a piece of machinery, like a car, is manufactured.  Do the factory workers just slap parts onto each car according to how they think they should fit together?  Of course not.  Cars are complex pieces of machinery, designed very carefully to do certain things and have certain features.  Factories follow plans to ensure that each car works as it should.   Another example: have you ever tried to put together a bookcase or other piece of furniture without the instructions?  It’s pretty difficult.  Writing is the same way: it needs a logical plan to make sense.


Let’s take, for a moment, a more writing-related example to drive the point home.  A lawyer is defending her client, a corporate CEO who is being sued for many millions of dollars by people who feel the product his company made has adversely affected their health.   When the lawyer makes an opening statement to the jury, does she simply “wing it” and hope the jury understands what she is talking about?   When she offers her closing statement, her impassioned summation of all the evidence in the case, does she simply speak from the top of her head, making up her statement as she goes along?   Surely not:  any lawyer that would do such a thing would quickly find herself sued for malpractice.   People who communicate for a living—writers, lawyers, media specialists, web designers—all go about planning, to a greater or less degree, exactly what they want to say before they say it. 


There are a number of primary ways to organize your writing.  In this chapter we will discuss two:  mapping (or “idea mapping” or “mind mapping”) and outlining. We will also cover how to apply these methods to your own writing and the essays you will be asked to produce in English 101.


Before we begin, it is important to note that the material you generated in the generating ideas part of the Writing Process is going to be indispensable here; your planning process will make extensive use of the “raw materials” that you generated through your brainstorming, freewriting, questioning, clustering, and looping exercises. 


Principles of Organization


Different modes of writing are organized in different ways.   Narrative essays, for example, are in most cases organized chronologically.  Expository or explanatory essays are organized according to the classifications or logical divisions within their subjects; comparison-contrast essays are organized conceptually, by the features of the subject being compared.   Argument essays are perhaps the most sophisticated and difficult essays to organize: they must follow a clear logical progression and development of evidence to be effective. 


Global Organization vs. Local Organization

Writing is organized both as a total entity—the “whole” piece of writing—as well as the individual parts that make up that whole.   In effective writing, both the “global” or “whole” piece of writing, and the “local” or constituent parts are logically connected.   More specifically, an essay should have an overall controlling idea that supplies structure, and be well- organized at the paragraph, and even sentence level.  


The key here is to consider how ideas and details fit together logically.   Seeing connections between ideas is often time-consuming, and in most cases requires considering, reconsidering, and considering again the ideas you are examining to find the most logical connections between them.  The successful writer conducts many thought “experiments” before making a commitment to a particular wording. The great American novelist Ernest Hemingway reportedly revised the conclusion to Farewell to Arms 43 times before he was satisfied with it. And that was in the days before computers made revision easy.


Starting the Planning & Organizing Process:  Listing, Grouping, and Ordering  

One of the first steps writers consider when planning out their writing is examining the similarities and differences between the ideas that they have generated for the project. 


Examine the following list of items, and group them into at least two distinct categories, according to criteria that seem logical to you:


Goat, lamb, lion, giraffe, pig, chicken, duck, horse, zebra, elephant, tiger, cow, baboon


One possible way of organizing the list above is through where the animals live or where they are located.  There seems to be some farm animals on this list, as well as some animals that live in the jungle. 


Category I:  Farm Animals

Category II:  Jungle Animals

Goat, Lamb, Pig

Chicken, Duck, Horse


Lion, Giraffe, Zebra

Elephant, Tiger, Baboon




Now consider a slightly more complicated problem of organization:


Chicken Parmesan, Sushi, Veal Marsala, Polish Sausage, Orange Roughy, New York Strip Steak, Pork Chop, Lake Trout, Pasta Primavera, Shrimp Tempura, Fried Chicken, Grilled Leg of Lamb


What are some ways that we could organize this particular list? 


By cultural origin of cuisine? 

















By food origin (land v. sea)?
















By method of cooking? 
























Now let’s move on to something a bit more applicable to your writing:  organizing a list of things conceptually via sequencing or via logical similarities.


Topic:  The Process of Enrolling in College

What is the most logical sequence for the events below?  Order them in the order that would be most appropriate to describe the process to someone unfamiliar with it.   What would the underlying scheme be?  How would your audience best make sense of all the things that one has to do to enroll in college?  Think carefully about how the process of applying to and attending college works, and let the organizational scheme you choose reflect that. 


Raw Materials (Brainstormed Ideas)


Reading enrollment brochures

Taking the SAT

Applying online

Registering for classes

Choosing the colleges to apply to

Meeting with an academic advisor

Putting in a deposit

Waiting for the admissions decision

Researching available majors

Attending the first class

Deciding that college is worthwhile

Moving to campus

Finding financial aid

Accepting the admission offer


Topic:   Benefits of a college education 

  Raw Materials (Brainstormed Ideas)


Make more money

Learn more about the world around you

Develop useful job skills

Meet people

Develop positive life-long learning habits

Have fun

Increase ability to communicate

Make useful professional contacts

Learn about and practice tolerance

Appreciate diversity

Become qualified for different or better jobs

Learn how to argue and defend yourself intellectually

Expand social horizons

Develop a network of social and professional supporters

Increase relationship attractiveness or eligibility

Develop critical thinking skills

Provide a better quality of life for children or family

Set a good example for friends and family



To begin to organize this list, start with the first item, and think carefully about what it means in relation to your topic.  Then put it in the left-most column below.   Then move on to the next item in the list.  Compare it to the item you’ve already put in the first column. What do they have in common?   Do they benefit the education-seeker in the same way?  Do they provide the same things?   If so, put the second item in the first column.  If not, put it in the next one to the right. 


Here, the first item, “make more money,” is pretty straightforward:  having a college education enables a person to make a lot more money over the course of her life.  This is a financial and personal benefit.  The second item, “learn more about the world,” is not financial, but is personal, and is a lot more abstract than the first.  So we’ll put it in the next column.    The third item, “develop useful job skills” returns to the basic idea that an education helps you make money through work; it’s personal and will lead to more personal success.   The fourth, “meet people,” is not really like the first three items—it’s primarily a social benefit, so we’ll put it in the third column.   Try organizing the rest of the list yourself—and be ready to explain why you think these things are similar and different!

make more money


develop job skills

Learn more about the world around you


Meet people




Grouping and sequence are key organizational ideas.  But how do we put them into a paper?   There are several ways to do this, but they fall into two main categories:  “mapping” and “outlining.”  Both serve similar functions in slightly different ways.



Mapping:  Idea Mapping or “Mind Mapping”


Mapping is a way that writers use, not unlike “branching” or “clustering,” to visualize a plan for their writing.   If you have ever seen a simple flow chart, a paper’s idea map is not that dissimilar.  To build an idea map, you’ll first have to do a bit of drawing.  Draw a shape (usually a rectangle, but any oblong shape will do), and put it at the top of your page.  Write your topic in this shape:


Benefits of a College Education  

Underneath your topic, put a statement that describes the types of categories or organizational groups that you came up with while organizing your ideas.  This could be “types of X, causes of Y, effects of Z,” or even “steps related to doing X task” :




An outline is another way of organizing your ideas. 


Outlines are built on the same underlying principles as idea maps, but present the ideas as parts of a hierarchical list rather than as a visual diagram.   Outlines also tend to be more specific than idea maps:  they often include a thesis statement (see Chapter 05.3.1) and very specific supporting details in addition to mapping out the larger logical divisions in an essay.  You may find it helpful to create an outline after you have completed your initial idea map—this will assist you in refining your ideas further and getting more specific details into your paper. 


There are two main types of outlines we will discuss here: the numbered outline and the topic-sentence outline.  The main difference between the two types is that the “topic sentence outline” requires you to actually draft a sample sentence introducing each topic; numbered outlines are a bit more general in what they cover (but much more specific than an idea map). 


Both methods, however, depend on your having an understanding of the logical grouping of the material that you generated during the generating ideas phase of the writing process.  Just as with the idea map, you will still have to look for similarities and logical relationships between the ideas that you generated.  



The Numbered Outline

You may have encountered this type of outline in high school or in another writing class.  The numbered outline provides a detailed roadmap for a paper, and is organized according to the logical divisions of both the essay itself and the topic being discussed.   Generally, numbered outlines use Roman numerals, capital and lower-case letters, and numbers to indicate the relationship between the items in the outline.  Also, most numbered outlines begin with sketching out the essay’s introduction (see Chapter 05.3.3) and thesis statement (see Chapter 05.3.1). 


Here is the basic organizational scheme of most numbered outlines.  The number of body paragraphs will vary with the writing project, as will the number of supporting details (and any subsequent clarifications of them).     Information can be added to the outline in phrases or complete sentences—your choice—but you have to be consistent throughout. 



  1. Introduction
    1. Background on Topic
    2. Establish Importance & Relevance of Topic
    3. Thesis Statement
  2. Body Paragraph 1: (First Logical Division)
    1. Supporting Detail (1)
    2. Supporting Detail (2)
    3. Supporting Detail (3)
      1. Clarification of Supporting Detail (3)
      2. Further Clarification of Supporting Detail (3)
  3. Body Paragraph 2 (Second Logical Division)
    1. Supporting Detail (1)
    2. Supporting Detail (2)
  4. Body Paragraph 3 (Third Logical Division)
    1. Supporting Detail (1)
    2. Supporting Detail (2)
  5. Conclusion
    1. Restate Main Points
    2. Re-Establish Importance of Topic



The Topic Sentence Outline

Topic sentence outlines are often used to transition between the “planning” stage of the writing process and the “drafting” stage.   The organizing principle behind the topic sentence outline is very similar to the numbered outline:  you must select appropriate material and establish logical distinctions between sections.    In the topic sentence outline, however, you go a step further, and try to craft good, well-constructed sentences that establish and describe these divisions:  these sentences will form the “ledes,” (pronounced “leeds”) or first sentences, of each of your paper’s paragraphs—your topic sentences. 


To complete a topic sentence outline, you will need to first come up with your essay’s thesis or main idea, as well as the main logical sub-divisions or supporting parts of your essay.   It is often helpful to use labels and boxes to clearly delineate your various areas of discussion.


Basic Organization of a Topic Sentence Outline


Thesis Statement:  Write here a single sentence stating the main idea of your paper—what  you want your audience to get from reading your essay.





Paragraph 1:  Begin your discussion of your supporting details in this paragraph.

Topic Sentence:   A single sentence that describes your first logical division—the first scene in your narrative, the first area of comparison in a compare-contrast, the first sub-claim in your argument, or the first step (or stage) in a process analysis.   




Description and support details relating to your topic sentence:  clarification, explanation, relevant definitions, descriptive details, evidence, facts.




Transition sentence to next logical division:






Paragraph 2:  Continue your discussion of your supporting details in this paragraph.

Topic Sentence:   A single sentence that describes your second logical division—the second scene in your narrative, the second area of comparison in a compare-contrast, the second sub-claim in your argument, or the second step (or stage) in a process analysis.  




Description and support details relating to your topic sentence:  clarification, explanation, relevant definitions, descriptive details, evidence, facts.




Transition sentence to next logical division:

Paragraph 3:  Continue your discussion of your supporting details in this paragraph.

Topic Sentence:   A single sentence that describes your third logical division—the third scene in your narrative, the third area of comparison in a compare-contrast, the third sub-claim in your argument, or the third step (or stage) in a process analysis.  




Description and support details relating to your topic sentence:  clarification, explanation, relevant definitions, descriptive details, evidence, facts.





Transition sentence to next logical division:




Paragraphs 4+ (Insert boxes as needed, repeating basic structure as shown above)


Conclusion:  Conclude your discussion of your supporting details in this paragraph.

Topic Sentence:   A single sentence that sums up the overall point or thesis of your paper.  Restating the thesis in different words here is often an effective means of summing up.



Remind your audience of the importance of your topic: