How to Organize an Academic Essay
Even if you have great ideas, disorganization can be a big roadblock to a successful essay. Keeping your paper clear and organized will make your arguments easier to understand and will make the paper easier to read. When you’re struggling to come up with ideas, the proper structure can also help you develop your arguments and get into the flow of writing.
You may be an English student writing about Shakespeare, a History student writing about the Ming Dynasty, or even a Geology student writing about volcanic activity. No matter what your subject, you want your essay to sound well-informed and well-thought out. Each individual paper will need a different approach, but you can apply the same principles to decide what that approach will be.
Step One: Decide on an order for your paragraphs.
When you’re brainstorming or drafting an essay, it’s tempting to just write your thoughts in any order you have them. However, coming up with a logical order for your paragraphs is one of the most important steps of writing your essay. Not only will this help your ideas make sense, it can also help you figure out what to write next when you’re stuck.
The best way to arrange your paragraphs will change depending on what you are writing about. If you’re writing about Shakespeare, you may start with analyzing the most major characters and then move onto the minor characters. If you’re writing about the history of the Ming dynasty, you may find it’s best to go chronologically, starting at the earliest events. Think about your subject and decide what will make the most sense when you are reading the essay. Following your set paragraph order will also help you avoid writer’s block, as you’ll already know each time you reach a paragraph what you need to write.
Step Two: Collect similar or related ideas into groups.
Of course, having your paragraphs in a set order won’t help if each paragraph is full of different ideas that aren’t connected. Each of your paragraphs should only have one subject, or one or two subjects that are very closely related. If you’re writing a paragraph about Romeo, try not to talk about Mercutio unless you’re mentioning him specifically to keep talking about Romeo. Keep each paragraph tightly focused, and if you find that you’re starting to stray away from the subject, consider whether you need to split it up into two or more.
Sometimes you have great ideas in the middle of a paragraph, but they’re not related to what you’re talking about at the time. If this happens, instead of just leaving the idea in the random paragraph where you thought of it, copy and paste it into a separate document so you can find a better place for it later.
Step Three: Check your thesis statement often.
We all know the importance of a thesis statement. It’s the backbone of your essay, and you can spend significant time just developing that one sentence. Don’t let all that work go to waste – make sure you keep your thesis in mind as you’re writing the rest of your essay. Check each paragraph as you’re writing it to see if it matches your thesis and fits into the argument you wrote out. You want to make sure each section supports and refers back to your thesis statement, and if it doesn’t then you should think about how you need to change it.
Don’t think of your thesis statement as set in stone, though. You may find that as you’re writing, the “point” of your paper shifts. If this new point makes more sense and is easier to write, all you have to do is change your thesis! Your paper will be clearer and more organized if you feel more comfortable with your thesis; if you try to force an essay from a thesis that isn’t quite right, this often results in disjointed ideas that don’t fit anywhere. Having the right thesis makes organizing your ideas much easier.
Step Four: Don’t be afraid to rearrange or rewrite.
No one wants to look at their hard work and realize they have to rewrite it, but sometimes that’s what’s best for your essay. Even though you probably don’t want to let go of all that work, leaving it in will make your essay weaker. Before you delete it, though, read through it and see if there’s anything you can keep. Are there sentences that might fit better in other paragraphs? Is there an idea that you could expand on in a new section? Even if a paragraph isn’t a success, that doesn’t mean it’s a failure.
You may also find that the organization you first decided on isn’t working as well as you thought it would. Take some time to copy and paste different sections of your essay into a new order to find something that works better. Try coming up with new connections between your paragraphs, or consider rearranging your sentences into new paragraphs themselves. Experimenting and having an open mind will often help you find even better layouts that you would not have thought of otherwise.
Step Five: Give yourself time to step away from the essay.
Sometimes you just aren’t sure what to do about a disorganized section of your essay, or you’re not sure whether a section makes sense or looks good. The best thing to do in this situation is to save your essay, close it, and not look at it for a day or two. When you come back, your brain will have spent that time making decisions in the background, and you’ll have forgotten enough about the paper to have a fresh perspective on it. You’ll be able to see new things and make new connections that will improve your essay.
Of course, you can only take this step if you leave yourself enough time before the assignment is due! Always make sure to start early enough that you can take the time you need to write the best essay you can. Easy assignments may only need one week, but harder ones may need several weeks or even a month. Giving yourself enough time will also keep you from becoming stressed or overwhelmed, which will help you think more clearly about your writing and organization overall.
Taking these steps to improve your organization can help your essay reach the next level, and it can help you while you’re writing as well. The most important thing is always to think carefully and thoroughly as you’re writing, and follow your common sense. Good luck!