Some basic guidelines
The best time to think about how to organize your paper is during the pre-writing stage, not the writing or revising stage. A well-thought-out plan can save you from having to do a lot of reorganizing when the first draft is completed. Moreover, it allows you to pay more attention to sentence-level issues when you sit down to write your paper.
When you begin planning, ask the following questions: What type of essay am I going to be writing? Does it belong to a specific genre? In university, you may be asked to write, say, a book review, a lab report, a document study, or a compare-and-contrast essay. Knowing the patterns of reasoning associated with a genre can help you to structure your essay.
For example, book reviews typically begin with a summary of the book you’re reviewing. They then often move on to a critical discussion of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. They may conclude with an overall assessment of the value of the book. These typical features of a book review lead you to consider dividing your outline into three parts: (1) summary; (2) discussion of strengths and weaknesses; (3) overall evaluation. The second and most substantial part will likely break down into two sub-parts. It is up to you to decide the order of the two subparts—whether to analyze strengths or weaknesses first. And of course it will be up to you to come up with actual strengths and weaknesses.
Be aware that genres are not fixed. Different professors will define the features of a genre differently. Read the assignment question carefully for guidance.
Understanding genre can take you only so far. Most university essays are argumentative, and there is no set pattern for the shape of an argumentative essay. The simple three-point essay taught in high school is far too restrictive for the complexities of most university assignments. You must be ready to come up with whatever essay structure helps you to convince your reader of the validity of your position. In other words, you must be flexible, and you must rely on your wits. Each essay presents a fresh problem.
Avoiding a common pitfall
Though there are no easy formulas for generating an outline, you can avoid one of the most common pitfalls in student papers by remembering this simple principle: the structure of an essay should not be determined by the structure of its source material. For example, an essay on an historical period should not necessarily follow the chronology of events from that period. Similarly, a well-constructed essay about a literary work does not usually progress in parallel with the plot. Your obligation is to advance your argument, not to reproduce the plot.
If your essay is not well structured, then its overall weaknesses will show through in the individual paragraphs. Consider the following two paragraphs from two different English essays, both arguing that despite Hamlet’s highly developed moral nature he becomes morally compromised in the course of the play:
(a) In Act 3, Scene 4, Polonius hides behind an arras in Gertrude’s chamber in order to spy on Hamlet at the bidding of the king. Detecting something stirring, Hamlet draws his sword and kills Polonius, thinking he has killed Claudius. Gertrude exclaims, “O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!” (28), and her words mark the turning point in Hamlet’s moral decline. Now Hamlet has blood on his hands, and the blood of the wrong person. But rather than engage in self-criticism, Hamlet immediately turns his mother’s words against her: “A bloody deed – almost as bad, good Mother, as kill a king, and marry with his brother” (29-30). One of Hamlet’s most serious shortcomings is his unfair treatment of women. He often accuses them of sins they could not have committed. It is doubtful that Gertrude even knows Claudius killed her previous husband. Hamlet goes on to ask Gertrude to compare the image of the two kings, old Hamlet and Claudius. In Hamlet’s words, old Hamlet has “Hyperion’s curls,” the front of Jove,” and “an eye like Mars” (57-58). Despite Hamlet’s unfair treatment of women, he is motivated by one of his better qualities: his idealism.
(b) One of Hamlet’s most serious moral shortcomings is his unfair treatment of women. In Act 3, Scene 1, he denies to Ophelia ever having expressed his love for her, using his feigned madness as cover for his cruelty. Though his rantings may be an act, they cannot hide his obsessive anger at one particular woman: his mother. He counsels Ophelia to “marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them” (139-41), thus blaming her in advance for the sin of adultery. The logic is plain: if Hamlet’s mother made a cuckold out of Hamlet’s father, then all women are capable of doing the same and therefore share the blame. The fact that Gertrude’s hasty remarriage does not actually constitute adultery only underscores Hamlet’s tendency to find in women faults that do not exist. In Act 3, Scene 4, he goes as far as to suggest that Gertrude shared responsibility in the murder of Hamlet’s father (29-30). By condemning women for actions they did not commit, Hamlet is doing just what he accuses Guildenstern of doing to him: he is plucking out the “heart” of their “mystery” (3.2.372-74).
The second of these two paragraphs is much stronger, largely because it is not plot-driven. It makes a well-defined point about Hamlet’s moral nature and sticks to that point throughout the paragraph. Notice that the paragraph jumps from one scene to another as is necessary, but the logic of the argument moves along a steady path. At any given point in your essays, you will want to leave yourself free to go wherever you need to in your source material. Your only obligation is to further your argument. Paragraph (a) sticks closely to the narrative thread of Act 3, Scene 4, and as a result the paragraph makes several different points with no clear focus.
What does an essay outline look like?
Most essay outlines will never be handed in. They are meant to serve you and no one else. Occasionally, your professor will ask you to hand in an outline weeks prior to handing in your paper. Usually, the point is to ensure that you are on the right track. Nevertheless, when you produce your outline, you should follow certain basic principles. Here is an example of an outline for an essay on Hamlet:
|thesis: Despite Hamlet’s highly developed moral nature, he becomes morally compromised while delaying his revenge.|
|I.||Introduction: Hamlet’s father asks Hamlet not only to seek vengeance but also to keep his mind untainted.|
|II.||Hamlet has a highly developed moral nature.|
|A.||Hamlet is idealistic.|
|B.||Hamlet is aware of his own faults, whereas others are self-satisfied.|
|C.||Hamlet does not want to take revenge without grounds for acting.|
|III.||Hamlet becomes morally compromised while delaying.|
|A.||The turning point in Hamlet’s moral decline is his killing of Polonius.|
|B.||Hamlet’s moral decline continues when he sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their death.|
|C.||Hamlet already began his moral decline before the turning point in the play, the killing of Polonius.|
|1.||Hamlet treats women badly.|
|2.||Hamlet criticizes others in the play for acting falsely to get ahead, but in adopting the disguise of madness he, too, is presenting a false face to the world.|
|IV.||Though Hamlet becomes more compromised the longer he delays, killing the king would have been a morally questionable act.|
|V.||Conclusion: The play Hamlet questions the adequacy of a system of ethics based on honour and revenge.|
This is an example of a sentence outline. Another kind of outline is the topic outline. It consists of fragments rather than full sentences. Topic outlines are more open-ended than sentence outlines: they leave much of the working out of the argument for the writing stage.
When should I begin putting together a plan?
The earlier you begin planning, the better. It is usually a mistake to do all of your research and note-taking before beginning to draw up an outline. Of course, you will have to do some reading and weighing of evidence before you start to plan. But as a potential argument begins to take shape in your mind, you may start to formalize your thoughts in the form of a tentative plan. You will be much more efficient in your reading and your research if you have some idea of where your argument is headed. You can then search for evidence for the points in your tentative plan while you are reading and researching. As you gather evidence, those points that still lack evidence should guide you in your research. Remember, though, that your plan may need to be modified as you critically evaluate your evidence.
Some techniques for integrating note-taking and planning
Though convenient, the common method of jotting down your notes consecutively on paper is far from ideal. The problem is that your points remain fixed on paper. Here are three alternatives that provide greater flexibility:
method 1: index cards
When you are researching, write down every idea, fact, quotation, or paraphrase on a separate index card. Small (5″ by 3″) cards are easiest to work with. When you’ve collected all your cards, reshuffle them into the best possible order, and you have an outline, though you will undoubtedly want to reduce this outline to the essential points should you transcribe it to paper.
A useful alternative involves using both white and coloured cards. When you come up with a point that you think may be one of the main points in your outline, write it at the top of a coloured card. Put each supporting note on a separate white card, using as much of the card as necessary. When you feel ready, arrange the coloured cards into a workable plan. Some of the points may not fit in. If so, either modify the plan or leave these points out. You may need to fill gaps by creating new cards. You can shuffle your supporting material into the plan by placing each of the white cards behind the point it helps support.
method 2: the computer
A different way of moving your notes around is to use the computer. You can collect your points consecutively, just as you would on paper. You can then sort your ideas when you are ready to start planning. Take advantage of “outline view” in Word, which makes it easy for you to arrange your points hierarchically. This method is fine so long as you don’t mind being tied to your computer from the first stage of the writing process to the last. Some people prefer to keep their planning low-tech.
method 3: the circle method
This method is designed to get your ideas onto a single page, where you can see them all at once. When you have an idea, write it down on paper and draw a circle around it. When you have an idea which supports another idea, do the same, but connect the two circles with a line. Supporting source material can be represented concisely by a page reference inside a circle. The advantage of the circle method is that you can see at a glance how things tie together; the disadvantage is that there is a limit to how much material you can cram onto a page.
Here is part of a circle diagram:
What is a reverse outline?
When you have completed your first draft, and you think your paper can be better organized, consider using a reverse outline. Reverse outlines are simple to create. Just read through your essay, and every time you make a new point, summarize it in the margin. If the essay is reasonably well-organized, you should have one point in the margin for each paragraph, and your points read out in order should form a coherent argument. You might, however, discover that some of your points are repeated at various places in your essay. Other points may be out of place, and still other key points may not appear at all. Think of all these points as the ingredients of an improved outline which you now must create. Use this new outline to cut and paste the sentences into a revised version of your essay, consolidating points that appear in several parts of your essay while eliminating repetition and creating smooth transitions where necessary.
You can improve even the most carefully planned essay by creating a reverse outline after completing your first draft. The process of revision should be as much about organization as it is about style.
How much of my time should I put into planning?
It is self-evident that a well-planned paper is going to be better organized than a paper that was not planned out. Thinking carefully about how you are going to argue your paper and preparing an outline can only add to the quality of your final product. Nevertheless, some people find it more helpful than others to plan. Those who are good at coming up with ideas but find writing difficult often benefit from planning. By contrast, those who have trouble generating ideas but find writing easy may benefit from starting to write early. Putting pen to paper (or typing away at the keyboard) may be just what is needed to get the ideas to flow.
You have to find out for yourself what works best for you, though it is fair to say that at least some planning is always a good idea. Think about whether your current practices are serving you well. You know you’re planning too little if the first draft of your essays is always a disorganized mess, and you have to spend a disproportionate amount of time creating reverse outlines and cutting and pasting material. You know you’re planning too much if you always find yourself writing your paper a day before it’s due after spending weeks doing research and devising elaborate plans.
Be aware of the implications of planning too little or too much. Planning provides the following advantages:
- helps you to produce a logical and orderly argument that your readers can follow
- helps you to produce an economical paper by allowing you to spot repetition
- helps you to produce a thorough paper by making it easier for you to notice whether you have left anything out
- makes drafting the paper easier by allowing you to concentrate on writing issues such as grammar, word choice, and clarity
Overplanning poses the following risks:
- doesn’t leave you enough time to write and revise
- leads you to produce papers that try to cover too much ground at the expense of analytic depth
- can result in a writing style that lacks spontaneity and ease
- does not provide enough opportunity to discover new ideas in the process of writing
Learning how to write well takes time and experience, and is generally learned through a trial and error process. Hoping to save you some common mistakes, here is a general guideline and some helpful tips on how to research effectively, what different essay sections should include, and how to present a strong argument. Keep in mind, that this is most relevant for social science papers. Links are provided throughout to selected handouts from the writing center. For more resources from the Writing Center go to their website.
The 10 Myths about Essay Writing
- “Essay has to be 5 paragraphs.”
- “Never use “I” or write in the first person.”
- “A paragraph must contain between 3-5 sentences.”
- “Never begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’.”
- “Never repeat a word or phrase in the same paragraph.”
- “Longer essays and fancier words are always better and mean a higher mark.”
- “Other students are so much better at writing essays.”
- “Good writing is an inborn talent.”
- “Good writers write quickly, effortlessly, and know exactly what they want to say from the beginning.”
- “Good writers never need to edit and don’t need any feedback.”
These statements are absolutely false, and the quicker you can change your mentality away from them the better.
The most important and fundamental thing about writing an essay is to make sure that it answers the question the assignment asks. You should ask yourself this question during your brainstorming, researching, writing, and editing phase to make sure that the answer is always yes! You can write a very well-written paper, but if it doesn’t answer the question in the assignment, you will not receive a good grade. When beginning your assignment you should:
- Determine what the assignment’s goal or purpose is. This means that you should have a pretty solid idea of what the professor or TA is looking for. Is it an analysis? A compare and contrast? A critical reflection? A book review? A case study? Here is a handout on the different types of essays and what they mean.
- Relate it to course content and concepts. This should form the basis of your research. See what concepts are used or what lecture topic(s) this falls under, and look over your notes and readings.
- Use the rubric or checklist provided and highlight the important parts you should address.
- Identify the technical requirements to make sure you don’t lose little marks. For example, style of citation, title page, formatting, voice, subheadings. If they are not outlined in the assignment, ask! The use of ‘I’ is a very important condition to clarify.
- List questions or clarifications you might have, and ask them ahead of time. Meeting your professor or TA to discuss the assignment, present your outline or ideas, and brainstorm different ways to approach it, will really improve the quality of your work.
Some general things to keep in mind when doing your research is to be careful to stay on topic and always double check with yourself that the research is relevant to your essay. That means not going too broad, but staying focused on your topic and recognizing that just because something is interesting does not mean that it is necessarily relevant to your argument.
Start with class resources and then move to library resources. Sometimes, using a certain number of class readings is a requirement. Make sure you comply with it. It is also a good idea when defining concepts to use class sources and material. Remember to never… EVER use Wikipedia as a cited source. It is a great way to get a better idea of different topics, concepts, people, and trivia, but not acceptable for an academic paper.
Students also tend to fall in the two categories of doing too much research or too little research. Doing too much research can definitely give you a better understanding of the broader issue of your topic, and this can be noticed in your writing. However, you can fall into the trap of adding things that are not necessarily relevant to your topic, resulting in a larger paper then the assignment requires. Doing too little research on the other hand, might not give you enough information on the topic and make for a shorter paper. Also remember, that not all sources you read will be useful, it takes time to find really good sources you can use for your paper. For a social science paper between 6-8 pages you generally should read at least 10 relatively good sources.
Be prepared to go back and research further while you are writing, in order to fill gaps in your arguments. This arises with the question “but why” with the development of your arguments. You also might need to find more supporting evidence to present a more convincing claim.
Make the best use of your time when selecting resources:
- Use carefully selected keywords for searches. The trick is to start as narrow as possible to get the sources most relevant to your topic and then substitute with synonyms and broader topics.
- Ask your professor or TA to recommend articles or authors on the topic. This is best when you have a wider variety or personal choice on the topic.
- The glorious CTRL+F. Most journal articles you can now search with Ctrl+F, so download the PDF or text and quickly give it a keyword search using Ctrl+F. This is especially useful if you are doing a specific case study i.e. country, indigenous peoples, women, or concepts.
- Read the abstract and if that looks promising then read the introduction and the conclusion, skimming through the subheadings and/or the first sentence of each paragraph. This will give you a pretty good idea if the article will be of use to you and save you time from reading the whole thing.
- Carefully choose the journals/data bases for your search. There are specific journals for different disciplines and regions of the world. The library does a great job at dividing these up. It takes a bit longer to look through each database but you get more quality and relevant sources.
Some ideas and suggestions on taking notes while researching:
- Paraphrase the main ideas of the source.
- Take notes for each relevant source. You usually need 3 things from a source: the main idea or argument presented, a sub argument or a sentence that is insightful, or evidence to support your arguments.
- The new version of Adobe Reader lets you highlight and insert text bubbles (for additional notes and ideas) in PDF files, so you can avoid printing them out or typing out your notes. This saves trees and times. It is also very important not to procrastinate or put-off writing down your ideas. Write it down right away, or you will forget it. Reading certain things can trigger-off brainstorming in your head, or a brilliant thought, or a criticism. Write it down! This will also help you get started on writing, since you will have some ideas written down already.
- It is very important to keep track of what information comes from what source, in order to cite correctly and avoid plagiarism.
- You should categorize or code your research according to your different arguments and supporting evidence. Re-formatting your research like this, for example all information from all sources relevant to your first argument are put together (keeping their individual citations), makes it much easier to write.
- Critically analyze your research. Build a set of concepts and questions, compare different views and arguments and their relevance and importance to your research. Instead of just listing and summarizing items, assess them, discussing their strengths and weaknesses. As well, be aware of biases in sources, both academic and news media.
Creating an Outline
Writing an outline is invaluable to help organize your thoughts and the structure of your essay informally, in order to check strengths and relevance of arguments, consistency with thesis, and flow. Your outline doesn’t have to be fully written out, as if you are handing it in to be marked, scribble it on a napkin, carve it into your desk, whatever helps you to outline your arguments and explain the flow to yourself. It will help you to pick up contradictions and weaknesses in your arguments before you start writing and it keeps you from going off-track. This is also a good stage to check with your professor or TA. You can meet with them in person or e-mail them your outline and thesis to get feedback. Check out this outline handout from the Writing Centre.
Essay Structure: Introduction
The main point of an introduction is to capture the attention of the reader and draw them in. This is why your first sentences should be well thought-out to engage and interest the reader. Always think of an introduction as an upside down triangle. It should start broad and become more narrow and specific. There are different things to include in your introduction, depending on the size of your paper. Since many students are confused about what an introduction should include, here is a general guideline to get you started. Also accept that if you write your introduction first, you will probably have to re-write it or at least tweak it depending on how the rest of your paper turns out.
- Literature review. The size and detail of this depends on the size of the paper. If you are writing a longer paper, this could be its own section. Mainly it addresses the main arguments and debates in the literature on your topic and how your line of argument is consistent or different from those.
- Provide background information on your topic, country case, political context, etc.
- Define the terms relevant to your paper. This is really important as it defines the scope of your paper, especially when using broad all-encompassing terms like empowerment, globalization, international community, democracy, etc.
- Answer the questions “so what?” / “why is this important?” / “who cares?” / “why should we care?”.
- Define the scope of your paper. This could be the specific time period you are discussing, country/location, specific case, etc. Being specific about the scope of your paper is like an academic safety guard, diminishing any criticisms for not addressing issues outside of your specified scope.
- Thesis Statement is the most fundamental component to include in your introduction. It is your basic argument, demonstrating what you are trying to prove. It should be concise and clear and it should be a statement that someone can disagree with a.k.a. an argument.
- Depending on the length of your paper you can also briefly summarize the organization of your paper. This is like providing a tour for the reader of your arguments to come.
Essay Structure: Body
There are important stylistic guidelines you should follow in the body of your paragraph. For example, you should try and use the same terminology as you find in the literature in order to sound more professional and scholarly. You should also ensure that there is transition and flow between each paragraph and between each argument. Try to explain specifically and clearly how each argument relates to your thesis to make sure your essay sounds more cohesive. Also remember that paragraphs are limited to one idea and should also make a clear point that connects to your argument and thesis. Here is a very useful handout on paragraphs and transition.
Avoid using overly complex language and words. It doesn’t ensure you sound smart or that you’ll get a better grade. Don’t be like Joey from Friends, “they are humid prepossessing Homo Sapiens with full sized aortic pumps” instead of “they are warm, nice people with big hearts”.
Building a strong argument
Reading good journal articles will help you write better by observing how academics develop their arguments. Ask your professor or TA to suggest a couple of well-written articles that you can learn from.
Every argument should have the following structure:
Claim (because of) Reason (based on) Evidence (acknowledging & responding to)Objections/Alternatives.
However, to make your argument more clear, you also need warrant. Warrant is a fancy term that basically shows the relevance of the claim. It is the principle that lets you connect reason and claim. It is the logical connection between a claim and a supporting fact (or evidence). Sometimes, that logical connection will be clear and obvious, where no explanation from the writer is needed. More often though, the writer needs to supply the warrant, explain how and why a particular piece of evidence is good support for a specific claim. This will tremendously improve the clarity of your writing and will help people outside your discipline to better follow and understand your arguments.
Addressing counterarguments is also an important part of developing a strong argument. It shows you have done extensive research and you have a good understanding of the topic in question. You should acknowledge existing and possible objections to your arguments and respond to them, discrediting them or showing why they don’t hold true in your case. If relevant and important, you should also address counterargument you cannot refute and concede to them.
Evidence is the last component you need to make a strong argument. Evidence supports your claims and convinces the reader. Evidence should be relevant, reliable, and representative of your reasoning. It is also a good idea to use several pieces of evidence for each argument, rather than just one. It could also be either primary or secondary. Here are some different types of evidence:
- Direct quotations (check out verbs for citing and verbs for introducing quotations
- Historical data
- Case studies
- Specific examples (i.e. of projects or experiences of specific groups)
- Credible newspaper articles
- Photos, sound recordings, or videos (i.e. the CBC Archives)
For more information, check out this handout on developing a logical argument.
For visual learners, here is what each paragraph or argument should look like:
And this should be the general structure of your paper:
Essay Structure: Conclusion
Remember that the ending matters, just like in the movies. Isn’t it really disappointing when you watch a movie with a great developing, edge-of-your-sear plot line that ends badly and quickly? The same goes for papers. The conclusion should bring it all together, showing that you have proven your thesis. Opposite to the introduction, it should start narrow and become broader. The most important point in a conclusion: do not introduce new arguments! Here are some general guidelines on what conclusions should include:
- Paraphrase your thesis and demonstrate how you have proven it with your arguments.
- Answer again the questions “so what?” and “why is this important?”
- Outline some of the lessons learned.
- Discuss some of the implications of your findings and analysis.
- Relate it to the wider context on the subject, course themes, or discipline.
- Identify some of the future areas for research that your paper opens up.
Editing, Revising, and Proofreading (preferably not at 4am the night before)
Best case scenario is to take some time (a day or two) between finishing your final draft and editing to give you some distance from your work. When editing, you should read slowly and out loud to catch run-on sentences or unclear ideas. Make a checklist for editing and proofreading. Here is an example of one. It is also a good idea to have someone else read your paper. Pretty much anyone will be able to catch small spelling and grammar mistakes that you have missed no matter how many times you have read over your paper. Someone in your class/field will be able to help you with the content, while someone not in your class/field is the best audience to test how well you explain your ideas and concepts. You should also look for someone who isn’t afraid to give you constructive criticism. Having said that, remember that everyone writes differently (i.e. has a different style), so you should also be critical of changes offered to you.
As well, start taking notice of the mistakes you usually make, so you can search out for them specifically. This can also be related to words you usually misspell or commonly confused words (i.e. complement & compliment, then & than, your & you’re).
Plagiarism is the most serious academic offence. If you are found guilty of plagiarism you can fail the assignment or the class, or be suspended or expelled from university. It could even affect your chances of getting into a grad program, as it remains on your record, and you are required to give an explanation as to what happened (even if you have only been investigated). The point is, good citation is really important. You shouldn’t take the risk of being caught of plagiarism and you should give other academics due credit for their work.
The most important thing to remember after selecting your preferred (or required) citation style is that in-text citation must match the work cited list. This means consistency with the author and the year, but also that you cannot have in-text citations that don’t have a full reference in the work cited, just like you cannot have a full reference without citing it throughout the text. Citation style also has to be consistent throughout the paper (i.e. you cannot go from APA to MLA). If you use sourcing engines to make your references, always double check their accuracy.
Here are some resources for APA style citation from the Writing Center and Owl.
Some final points about writing papers:
- The length of sections should be proportionate to the size of your essay. So a 1 page introduction to a 5 page essay is too much.
- When the assignment says between 6-8 pages, it is better to do 8 than 6. When you have such limited number of pages, you need space to develop your argument. However, don’t just ramble on and on, repeating the same arguments in different ways to fill-up space.
- Remember that clarity and conciseness are your friends.
- Try and use a more active, instead of a passive voice, to sounds more assertive and succinct. (See this handout)