Revision Strategies: Organization

Revision is re-seeing the writing you’ve done so far while keeping the reader in mind. It’s your chance to look at your writing objectively to see how a reader would interpret and respond to your writing.

Can the reader logically follow your ideas from point to point? Have you supported your ideas with enough evidence and the right kinds of evidence? Is your thesis or main point clear? Does everything in the paper connect back to the thesis? Have you included extraneous information or gotten off point? Have you actually changed or clarified your claim or argument as you wrote (you should then revise your thesis statement to match)?

Below are some strategies to help you re-see your writing and then improve its readability and impact on your reader.

Topic Sentences and Transitions (Sign Posts for the Reader)

A well-written paper makes explicit connections between ideas—each paragraph connects to the paragraphs preceding and following it; within each paragraph, sentences connect so the reader is easily carried along from point to point. Topic sentences and transitions act as “sign posts” that keep your reader from getting lost or having to backtrack through your ideas.

One way to determine if your ideas are moving logically and can be easily followed by the reader (what many people call "flow"), is to look at only the topic sentences and transitions, removing the rest of the sentences, as explained below. You can do this on a computer or a printed draft.

  1. Copy and paste (or underline or highlight) the first sentence of each paragraph and the last sentence of each paragraph.
  2. Read those sentences one after another to see if you can follow the essay’s flow.
  3. Add/clarify topic sentences or add/modify the transitions as needed.

A Visual Check

Look at your paper visually—are some paragraphs too long or too short compared to others?

  1. If too long, see if you have more than one idea in the paragraph and consider dividing it into two or more paragraphs.
  2. If too short, does the information belong in another paragraph? Or if it’s an important point of its own, how can you expand on it? (See the “Developing Ideas” handout for strategies.)

Reverse Outlining

Because writing is a process of discovery, we sometimes come up with new ideas while writing, or get side tracked on a minor point, or don’t clarify our argument (or thesis) until the end. To see the organization you actually ended up with, you can create a reverse outline of your draft. Then you can examine the outline to see if your organization is logical. Will it make sense to a reader? To create the reverse outline:

  1. Draw a line down a sheet of paper to create two columns (or create a two-column table in Word).
  2. Above the columns, write the thesis statement or main point of the essay. Also, underline it in the essay.
  3. For every paragraph:
    • In one column, write the main point (or points) in a few words or sentences.
    • In the other column, write what each paragraph is doing—for example, argument/claim/thesis, context, evidence, support, transition to new topic, recap, significance.
    • Number the paragraphs in your essay and in the reverse outline as you go.
  4. After you’ve finished, look at your outline and consider:
    • Does every paragraph relate to your paper’s main topic or thesis and is the connection clear?
    • Does each paragraph have a topic sentence that clearly states the main point of the paragraph as you’ve summarized it in your outline?
    • Can a reader follow your order of ideas? Or does information seem to be in the wrong place? (For example, is your main point or thesis in the first paragraph or early in the paper? If the contextual information is spread out with other information in between, would it make more sense to group those contextual paragraphs together?)
    • Is the evidence presented in a persuasive order (for example, strongest first, next strongest last, and weakest in the middle)?
    • Are you repeating yourself anywhere?
    • Do you have too many ideas in one paragraph?
  5. Look at the “what” column. Does the essay move logically? (For example, the argument moves from general topic to thesis statement to contextual background to evidence to example to evidence to example to counter argument to rebuttal to evidence to recap to significance, or from most persuasive or important point to least persuasive/important, or chronologically, or another logical progression.)

For additional tips to review your reverse outline, see our handout "Reverse Outlining."