Teaching Writing: Organizing Ideas

This post is part of a series on Writing Pedagogy.

Some writing tasks come with a rigid structure built in, while some are more open-ended and leave the writer to decide how to organize the ideas. Writers often think they want freedom, but sometimes the freedom can be paralyzing. This freedom paralysis often comes hand in hand with intimidation by the page count required.

When we look at the page count as a huge empty expanse that we have to fill, it can be hard to get started. I find it to be helpful to think instead about those pages as a resource I get to spend.

In MLA format (double-spaced, 12pt, Times New Roman font with one-inch margins), a page holds approximately two paragraphs. This is, of course, only a generalization–sometimes it’s three, sometimes one and a half. But for planning purposes, 1 page = 2 paragraphs is useful.

In a 4-5 page paper, I have 8-10 paragraphs to spend. In a 10-12 page paper, 20-24 paragraphs. Some of those paragraphs are already allocated. Even before I start writing, I know that I’m going to need to spend some of my paragraphs on an introduction and a conclusion. Some topics require a paragraph for definitions of terms. Literary analysis papers usually need a paragraph of summary/background for each text under consideration. Once I subtract those required paragraphs from the total available, I know how many I have to spend on the topics my thesis statement promises to cover.

Thinking this way helps me break down the essay as an intimidating monolith into pieces that I can allocate to specific parts of my paper. Then, I can start writing the first draft with whichever section I’m most excited about.

Here’s a brief video about thinking this way for 4-5 page papers:

And a slightly longer video that talks through planning for longer papers:

5 thoughts on “Teaching Writing: Organizing Ideas”

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      Really, though, as I tell my students, errors in mechanics only matter when impede communication.

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