Essential College Skills: Organizing a Paper

Crafting a well-written research paper worthy of an A always starts with the same first step: organizing your thoughts. Before you can begin to worry about page length, grammar, and citing sources, you must develop a strong thesis statement and organize your ideas for supporting paragraphs. Once you have a map of ideas to guide the paper's structure, researching and writing it will be easier.

There is no single correct way to organize a paper, but there are several popular formats that may be useful to you. A useful general approach to organizing is this:

  1. First, explain to the audience what you're going to tell them.
  2. Next, tell them.
  3. Finally, tell them what you just told them.

Let's look at some common essay terminology:

What is a "thesis statement"?

The thesis statement is the main point of your paper. It is concise, usually just one sentence long, and often appears in the introductory paragraph. It sums up your argument and gives the reader a clear picture of what's to come. A paper without a thesis statement lacks focus. Think of your thesis statement as an umbrella; everything you take along the way must fit underneath. The thesis statement may evolve or change as you write the paper.

What is an "introductory paragraph"?

The first paragraph of any paper, or the introduction, is important. It should capture the interest of the reader with an attention-grabbing first sentence. It also contains three to four supporting sentences that build to the thesis and address the body of the essay. The last sentence of the introductory paragraph is often the thesis statement.

What are "body paragraphs"?

Body paragraphs support the claims described in the thesis statement. They make up the bulk of the paper. We will focus on organizing the body paragraphs in the tips below. Each body paragraph has the same basic structure: a main point, supporting points or arguments for the main point, further description or citations, and a summary.

What is a "conclusion paragraph"?

Offer a recap or summary of the thesis and main points in the conclusion paragraph. Use this space to also leave any parting ideas with the reader. If your essay has any wider implications, points to other research, leads to another purpose, or prompts the reader to take action, describe the ideas in the conclusion. Avoid beginning this paragraph with "In conclusion."


Using an Outline

An outline is the blueprint of your paper and a common organization technique. Traditional outlines use Roman Numerals to note paragraphs, the alphabet to note main points, and numbers to note supporting points. You can include as much or as little detail as you need in your outline. Use it show the relationship between the thesis and the supporting paragraphs, as well as the relationship between the supporting paragraphs. Here is an example of an outline:

Topic: Vaccines

  1. Introduction
    1. Importance of vaccines, compared to seat belts and baby gates
    2. Thesis statement:  Despite rare side effects and public controversy, childhood vaccines prevent the spread of dangerous diseases, which can save lives, time, and money otherwise spent on treatments, and protect future generations.
  2. Immunizations can save a child's life
    1. Brief history
    2. Some diseases are preventable
    3. Information about polio
    4. Once caused death and paralysis
      1. No reported cases in America
  3. Vaccinations are safe and effective
    1. Medical professionals and scientists agree vaccines are safe
    2. Some vaccines may cause discomfort
      1. Common side effects
      2. Rare side effects
    3. Benefits outweigh potential side effects
  4. Immunizations can save your family time and money
    1. Children without immunizations may be denied access to school or daycare
    2. Contracting a preventable disease could require costly treatment
      1. Hospitalization costs as an example
      2. Care spent on illness could result in lost wages
    3. Vaccines are often covered by insurance or are provided at a low cost
  5. Immunizations protect future generations
    1. Vaccines have greatly reduced or eliminated some diseases
      1. Small pox example
      2. Polio example
    2. Vaccines today may eradicate certain diseases in the future.
  6. Conclusion
    1. Describe public controversy and rebuttal
    2. Summary

Source: Website of the National Vaccine Program Office in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Using a Bubble Map

Connect your main and supporting ideas using a bubble map – a great, graphic technique for visual learners. Start with your main idea in one bubble. Brainstorm ideas for supporting points, using additional bubbles, and so on. This technique helps show you how random thoughts may actually connect. Here is an example of a bubble map, using the same information utilized in the previous vaccine example:

Topic: Vaccines

Using a Brainstorm Technique

Overcome writer's block by trying the brainstorm technique. Detail all your ideas, both the good and the bad, on paper. Next, review them to whittle or cross off the ideas you don't like. Essentially, you're left with your best ideas. These ideas will serve as your main points. You may want to utilize an outline or bubble map to flesh out your main ideas.  Here is an example of the brainstorm technique, using the same information utilized in the previous vaccine examples:

Vaccines Treatment is expensive History of vaccines
Prevent illness Eradicate diseases Polio and Small Pox examples
Are cheap May eradicate future diseases Conspiracy theories that are anti-vaccine
Are easily accessible Compare to flu shots Types of vaccines
Save lives Adult vaccines Health risks
Few side effects Spacing vaccines Herd immunity
Controversial Autism Statistics
Save money    

Still need help organizing your paper? Phone a friend!

Think of your paper as a conversation between you and your reader. Imagine how you'd describe the content to a friend on the phone. How would you start? What ideas would you present to defend your argument? What examples would you describe? These main points are likely the same main ideas you'd use in a paper.

Don't let a page length requirement or looming deadline overwhelm you. Before you write, take time to organize your thoughts by utilizing one of the strategies listed or a combination of the three. You'll find that your time spent researching and writing is more effective and your paper is more focused. The ultimate payoff will result in a good grade.