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Organization and Structure

There is no single organizational pattern that works well for all writing across all disciplines; rather, organization depends on what you’re writing, who you’re writing it for, and where your writing will be read. In order to communicate your ideas, you’ll need to use a logical and consistent organizational structure in all of your writing. We can think about organization at the global level (your entire paper or project) as well as at the local level (a chapter, section, or paragraph). At all times, the goal of revising for organization and structure is to consciously design your writing projects to make them easy for readers to understand. A good goal is to make your writing accessible and comprehensible to someone who just reads sections of your writing rather than the entire piece. This handout provides strategies for revising your writing to help meet this goal.

Outlining & Reverse Outlining

One of the most effective ways to get your ideas organized is to write an outline. While a traditional outline with Roman numerals or capital and lowercase letters can be an effective tool, outlines do not always need to be this formal. When you outline, you can use any style that works for you, from one-word ideas to shorter phrases or sentences. You might also consider the medium you outline in—using notecards or a digital medium can allow you to easily revise and rearrange your ideas.

A traditional outline comes as the pre-writing or drafting stage of the writing process. As you make your outline, think about all of the concepts, topics, and ideas you will need to include in order to accomplish your goal for the piece of writing. Write down each of these, and then consider what information readers will need to know in order for each point to make sense. Try to arrange your ideas in a way that logically progresses, building from one key idea or point to the next.

Questions for Writing Outlines

1) What are the main points I am trying to make in this piece of writing?
2) What background information will my readers need to understand each point? What will novice readers vs. experienced readers need to know?
3) In what order do I want to present my ideas? Most important to least important, or least important to most important? Chronologically? Most complex to least complex? Another order?

Reverse outlining comes at the drafting or revision stage of the writing process. After you have a complete draft of your project (or a section of your project), work alone or with a partner to read your project with the goal of understanding the main points you have made and the relationship of these points to one another.

Questions for Writing Reverse Outlines

1) What topics are covered in this piece of writing?
2) In what order are the ideas presented? Is this order logical for both novice and experienced readers?
3) Is adequate background information provided for each point, making it easy to understand how one idea leads to the next?
3) What other points might the author include to further develop the writing project?


Signposting is the practice of using language specifically designed to help orient readers of your text. Signposting includes the use of transitional words and phrasing, and they may be explicit or more subtle. For example, an explicit signpost might say:

This section will cover Topic A­­ and Topic B­­­­­.

A more subtle signpost might look like this:

It's important to consider the impact of Topic A­­ and Topic B­­­­­ .

The style of signpost you use will depend on the genre of your paper, the discipline in which you are writing, and your or your readers’ personal preferences. Regardless of the style of signpost you select, it’s important to include signposts regularly. They occur most frequently at the beginnings and endings of sections of your paper. It is often helpful to include signposts at mid-points in your project in order to remind readers of where you are in your argument.

Questions for Revision

1) Does the author include a phrase, sentence, or short group of sentences that explains the purpose and contents of the paper?
2) Does each section of the paper provide a brief summary of what was covered earlier in the paper?
3) Does each section of the paper explain what will be covered in that section?
4) Does the author use transitional words and phrases to guide readers through ideas (e.g. however, in addition, similarly, nevertheless, another, while, because, first, second, next, then etc.)?

Works Consulted

Clark, I. (2006). Writing the successful thesis and dissertation: Entering the conversation. Prentice Hall Press.

Davis, M., Davis, K. J., & Dunagan, M. (2012). Scientific papers and presentations. Academic press.