Just as there are multiple parts of an argument, conclusion, reasoning, evidence, and so forth, so also these elements can be organized in many possible ways. Some of these ways make the argument easier to follow, while others make it much more difficult. Overall, an essay needs to have a proper introduction, body and conclusion, with the major claim (thesis) being made advanced at the end of the introduction, beginning of the body, and beginning of the conclusion. The substance of the reasoning and evidence needs to be presented in the body of the essay. The points of reasoning and evidence need to be presented in an order that does not appear arbitrary, and the reader needs to be gently and carefully led from one topic to the other, using transitions that help readers follow the discussion from point to point. The first factor within consideration of the organization of an argument is its structure.
The overall structure of an essay is very important; properly structured essays are easy to read and easy to remember. In the best writing the introduction, body, and conclusion are proportional to the length of the essay and are concerned with appropriate information.
In the introduction, the central task is to present the topic of consideration within a larger context of related discussions. Readers should be led carefully from general discussion of the topic and related areas to more specific considerations and finally to the main thesis of the essay. Experienced writers usually write the introduction of an essay last, after first draft of the the body and the conclusion have been done.
In the body of the essay the discussion proceeds from a second statement of the essay’s thesis to a consideration of the evidence and rationale supporting the argument in an order that seems natural to readers of essays, whether historical, geographical, or topical. A general guide for proportion of the body is that it should be about 80% of the length of the total essay.
The conclusion again restates the thesis and considers either the personal stake the author has in the issue or the relevance of the position taken to other related issues. There is no further support for the thesis presented in the conclusion.
Minor confusion in this overall structure, or perhaps minor evidence present in the introduction and/or conclusion of the essay, may still provide an adequate, if not excellent, structure for the essay. To the degree that the discussion is chaotic at the highest levels, the overall structure of the essay will be found to be inadequate.
There is more to the organization of an essay than just getting the introduction, body, and conclusion with proper information in each written. Lower levels of structure, including paragraphs and below, also provide a basis for evaluation.
Flow of discussion: paragraphs and transitions
At a lower level of structure than that of the overall essay, paragraphs and sentences in the best writing seem to follow a natural, non-arbitrary order. Oftentimes, structural parallels provide a sense of security to readers; if one part of the essay follows a chronological presentation of ideas, other sections are more likely to be understood easily when they also follow the same standard for ordering. At the highest levels of structure, whole paragraphs of well written essays will serve no other purpose than to get the reader to move from one topic to another (transitional paragraphs). At lower levels of structure, the same function of transitioning may be accomplished in single sentences or even in phrases and transitional words (first, second, next, finally, and so forth). While writers are often too bored to include such elements in their work, readers find them very helpful in following the discussion easily. As long as the transitions provided are not too repetitive (everyone gets tired of writers always using first, second, and so on), such elements are far from boring for readers. Adequate work in writing will occasionally leave transitions out from where they belong; inadequate writing often moves from topic to topic without any transitions at all. Such poorly organized writing also seems chaotic in many of the main paragraphs of the discussion, moving from statement to statement and leaving readers to figure out on their own how sentences within a paragraph are supposed to relate to each other.
When the overall essay has a proper structure and writers have worked hard at lower levels to make sure readers can easily follow the discussion, evaluating essays becomes a thoroughly enjoyable task. However, there are still other factors of importance to consider in the evaluation of an essay’s organization. An essay’s discussion must be well developed, for example.
Excellent written essays discuss topics fully, giving equal weight and consideration to ideas that have equivalent importance to the issue being discussed. Adequate essays make minor blunders in this area. Some essays of lesser quality spend too much time discussing some points, while leaving other equally important ones briefly summarized. In some cases, essays will even leave some topics known to be relevant to the issue out of the discussion entirely. This creates “gaps” in the development of discussion. For example, suppose a writer knows there are four major aspects or factors relevant to a full consideration and decision on an issue, and suppose the essay presented discusses only two of these four aspects or factors, even though the four known factors have approximately equal importance overall. In such a case, the writer has failed to develop the discussion properly.
Proper writing will have a proper overall structure and will be complemented at lower levels with equal concern to be organized in an understandable way, but there will also be a sense in reading well-organized essay that there has been a balanced discussion that has deeply considered relevant information. Once this has been accomplished, good writers will want to turn to the next factor, that of the order topics are considered in the body of an essay.
In the best written essays, the next topic discussed will always seem to be “next” in terms of some logical category, such as time, space, function or purpose, similarity, or importance. Such ordering needs to be evident in more than just two topics; the best discussions will extend the movement from topic to topic in as long a chain of proximity (think of it as natural “nextness”) as possible. Excellent writing seems neatly ordered in terms of the movement from topic to topic, while worse writing becomes excessively unordered, with inadequate work being seen as chaotic at both upper and lower levels of structure (that is, both above and below paragraph level).
Writers who have worked hard to organize their writing in the ways mentioned above are well on their way to receiving a good mark on this criterion. There is one more factor of organization to consider; this concerns the overall readability of the essay.
A well-written essay of up to 20 pages should be interesting and enjoyable to read for any readers who enjoy reading as a hobby. Shorter essays should only provide frustration in that readers should wish the essay were longer. When writing is poorly organized or leaves a lot of the work of making sense out of the discussion up to the readers, it can be very hard work. Sometimes, essays can be almost impossible to make sense of; such work is inadequately organized.
One of the main contributors to difficulty in reading that has not yet been mentioned is that of sentence length. Inexperienced writers usually put too much in each sentence. Even when they do not fall prey to such errors as run-on (and...and...and...) sentences, they may combine main and dependent clauses together in such long chains that reading is made difficult, even when all the pieces actually are considered “grammatical.” While it is not a hard rule that sentences should not have more than 20 words or 3 clauses, it is a good idea to consider shortening sentences that have more than 2 clauses and making sentences with 3 clauses or more than 20 words in them very rare in students’ writing. Said another way: People don’t set hard rules about sentence length, It is not required for students only to write sentences shorter than 3 clauses or 20 words. What students should do is to consider shortening the longer sentences in their essays. Perhaps sentences that have more than 20 words or 3 clauses could be written as two separate sentences.It will not always be possible to avoid writing long sentences, but they should occur only very rarely.
When writers have spent so much time on research and reflection, clarity, and proper organization, the last factor will seem insignificant. Indeed, it is only half the importance of organization, and only a quarter of that of research and reflection. It might occur to students to wonder whether the criterion of style and mechanics should even be included in university writing evaluations at all. The reason they are included is not to be overly picky or hard to please in university courses; it is because care in adhering to these standards helps writers communicate widely to English readers throughout the world.