Organization in Writing: A Lost Art

Remember the days of the five-paragraph essay? We started in elementary school learning about topic sentences and then main ideas. We threw in some supporting details, restated that topic statement and rounded that paper out. It was clean, it was simple, and yet it is fast becoming a relic we need to bring back!

When you’re learning to write in a different language or looking to perfect your English structure and flow, your best friend is organization. Yet for reasons only school teachers battling standardized tests will understand, the five paragraph essay is almost gone. It’s all about the “personal narrative” and “stream of consciousness” now. I’ll all about personal experiences. We love blogs as a society for this very reason, but there is a huge difference between writing a random thought for a few extended paragraphs and writing a feature, or even a non-feature, simple article for distribution or filler.

Stream of Consciousness and the Personal Narrative

Lately I’ve noticed this problem as much with native writers as non-natives. They don’t know how to frame out a piece. Organization has gone from a structured outline to a rambling collection of events. After all, every essay from standardized tests to college applications is a personal experience one these days. “Tell us all about a life changing situation of some kind on the two pages provided.” Not surprisingly this translates into a poorly written “Being overweight is bad, so I lost weight and you can, too” in the modern online writing world. Come on people, we’re better than that!

Increasingly, I’m seeing Dear Diary style writing when it comes to articles online. Blogs are indistinguishable from articles, and frankly it’s sloppy and often illegible. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you’re probably one of the ones who are blurring the lines. Can an article be from the first person perspective? Absolutely.

Should an article about weight loss be a musing ramble of why it’s so important to lose weight because you’ll look good and how you’ll probably need a new haircut and maybe some new shoes, too? Probably not. Blogs can be rambles sometimes, but even those I would argue need to have a bit more meat. I’ve even seen it pop up in requirements for writers. When a client is requesting “paragraphs and preferably subheadings” we’ve got a problem.

A “Meaty” Article

Here’s an outline for you. An article at its very basic elements might look like this:

This is a powerful opening sentence designed to get the reader’s attention. It is followed by another sentence or two to introduce your main point. Finally a nice topic sentence sets us up with the main point of the whole piece.

Subheading One

Your first paragraph should be clearly tied to your subheading. Think back to your textbooks in history. You knew exactly what was going to happen in each section and you could even skip around based on the subheadings. Are you giving that nice sense of organization to your readers?

Subheading Two

Now you give a totally different perspective or main point about your topic. It’s not a chance to keep rambling about the same point you just made. Be unique! Be daring! Try something interesting here. Hey! Why not quote an expert?

Subheading Three

Do you need at least three main points? Maybe not, but there’s a reason good things happen in triplets – it’s just a nice way to count off the important things you’re trying to say.

You can even have more than one paragraph under each subheading so long as you’re in the same pattern of thought. Why not even throw in a list of things like:

  • Thing One
  • Thing Two
  • Thing Three

Lists can be great for readers so long as they really all value to what you’re saying.

Now it’s time to wrap things up. Your final paragraph can be a nice summary or it can be a powerful closing message if you’re looking to convey an action or message. You might even end with a powerful question. Did you really need to see this oh-so-basic-it’s-insulting example to get it? Organize people!

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Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.

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