Planning & Organizing Papers

Understand the Assignment

Read the assignment carefully to understand what kind of paper you are being asked to write. Who is the intended audience? Is the use of first person allowed or appropriate? What is the purpose of the paper?  Should the thesis be analytical (informing the reader about a topic without “choosing sides”), or should it be argumentative (taking a position on a topic and attempting to persuade the reader to concur with that position)?

Organize Your Paper

Although many disciplines have specific formatting conventions, almost all academic papers follow the general structure below. Don't feel that you must write these sections in order: Many writers find it easier to write the body paragraphs and conclusion before writing (or revising) the introduction.

The INTRODUCTION tells your readers what you are going to tell them. It should:

  • Grab your readers' attention with a pertinent quotation, significant image, or striking statement.
  • Express the purpose and goals for the paper.
  • Convince readers that the topic is important.
  • “Tell them what you're going to tell them” in a clear thesis statement that serves as the controlling idea for the paper. The thesis statement should indicate what the paper is about and should suggest the approach that you plan to take. It often appears as the final sentence of the introduction.

The BODY tells your readers what you want them to know. 

Its length will depend upon the number of major points covered in the paper. Do note, however, that the “five-paragraph essay” taught in many high schools does not provide adequate development for most college-level papers.  Also,

  • Be sure to describe and discuss the topic in sufficient detail. Unless instructed otherwise, imagine a generally well-informed reader who is not an expert on your topic.
  • Avoid over-generalizing. Support your points with concrete details, examples, and evidence.
  • Use quotations sparingly. Try to paraphrase when possible.  Paraphrasing shows that you understand the sources you are citing and allows your voice to dominate the paper.
  • Do not neglect any opposing views. Instead, address and analyze counter-arguments to show that you have considered all sides of an issue.
  • After you have written a first draft, look over the topic sentence for each paragraph. Would a reader be able to follow the logic of your paper simply by reading the topic sentences?  If not, strengthen your transitions and check your paragraphs for unity and coherence. 

The CONCLUSION tells your readers what you told them. 

It reiterates the main points, perhaps providing a brief summary. A conclusion should not, as a rule, incorporate new information. Depending on the nature of the paper, the conclusion may discuss the implications of your findings, propose taking some specific course of action, make a prediction, or pose a question for further study.

See also our tips on “Writing a Thesis Statement,” “In the Beginning: Writing Effective Introductions,” and “And in Conclusion:  Strategies for Writing Effective Conclusions.”

Logical Ways of Organizing Ideas

Just as drivers without road maps may wander around and may even fail to reach their destination, writers without logical plans for organizing their ideas may wander around and fail to achieve their purpose—to illustrate, to persuade, or to inform. To avoid getting lost— or losing your reader—develop a plan for organizing your paper. 

That said, few writers sit down, cup their chin in their hand and say, “Ah, I believe I shall write a cause and effect paper today.”  While the patterns below reflect the way that people think and process information, and thus can be quite useful in outlining a paper, they may be even more helpful in the revision stage of writing. If you have written a draft that seems jumbled and disorganized, study it with these patterns in mind. Ask, where could I use one or more of these patterns to improve the flow or my paper or to make it more logical and comprehensible? The following are some of the most common patterns of organizing information:

  • Illustration or Example patterns flesh out a main idea by providing relevant examples, such as anecdotes, case studies, testimonials, or hypothetical scenarios. Ideas may be organized from general to specific or from specific to general. For example, if you were writing an argumentative paper asserting that it should be illegal to drive while using a cell phone, you could start by describing a specific accident that was caused by a driver talking on the phone, and then broaden to a more general statement of the problem.  Conversely, you could begin with a general overview and then move on to specific examples and details.
  • Description patterns create a portrait of a person, place, or thing by providing specific, concrete details and by using figurative language, such as metaphors and similes. An effective description will appeal to one or more of the five senses. It will create a scene full of sights, sounds, and textures in your reader's mind. And it will show rather than merely telling.  For example, you may tell your reader that “weasels are tenacious,” but it is more effective to show this tenacity, as Annie Dillard does in the following excerpt from “Living Like Weasels”:  “One naturalist refused to kill a weasel who was socketed into his hand deeply as a rattlesnake. The man could in no way pry the tiny weasel off, and he had to walk half a mile to water, the weasel dangling from his palms, and soak him off like a stubborn label.”
  • Narration patterns use a sequence to recount an event. The minutes of a meeting, a technical manual describing how to use an MP3 player, and the story you told everyone after your first date are all examples of narration. Depending on the nature of the narrative, it may recount events chronologically or it may use flashbacks and/or flash-forwards. Just as in a good comedy act or suspense film, the true art of narrative lies in its timing: An effective narrative illustrates the significance of an experience and creates tension by emphasizing key moments. Be creative and thoughtful about what you choose to focus on—for example, devoting four paragraphs to that first kiss—and what you choose to convey more fleetingly—for example, writing that “three weeks later, we broke up. Then I met my true love.”
  • Comparison-Contrast patterns are used to show how ideas, people, or objects are similar and/or different. Usually, a “point by point comparison” (discussing one point of similarity or difference for both subjects, then the next point, and so on) is preferable to “comparison of the whole” or the block format (discussing every aspect of one subject before beginning the other). The block format can be effective, but if not handled properly, it can result in two separate papers clumsily joined by a transitional paragraph. If you do use this technique, be sure that your introduction links the topics and that your conclusion  analyzes your findings sufficiently.  It is also a good idea to refer periodically to the second item in the first section and vice versa. (See also “Writing a Compare & Contrast Paper.”)