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Just the plain facts!
PRESENTATION SERIES
How to organize the body of an essay
© Nicholas G. Ashby 2004
How to organize the body of an essay
Background
So you have done the reading and research,
and you are now ready to start writing your
paper. But there are so many ideas and facts
you want to include that you are not sure how
to organize them in the body of the essay!!
Sound familiar?! If so, read on…
Diagrams
Creating a diagram of the structure of your
essay before writing can be useful. Diagrams
typically consist of key ideas, key
arguments, or key stages, arranged in the
order you want them to be discussed in the
essay. When you organize your key
components, the minor facts will fall into place.
Example of a simple diagram
Environment
Saves
millions
of lives
each year
Similarities
Strengths
Argument for
a ban on DDT
Argument against
a ban on DDT
Long
half-life
Human
health
Malaria
control
Compare and contrast
Differences
Evaluate arguments
Weaknesses
Diagrams
The beauty of diagrams is that they allow you
to work out the organization of an essay
without the need to write a draft.
But a drawback of
diagrams is that
they are of limited
use if your
problem is that of
working out what
the key
components of the
essay should be!
Key ideas, arguments and stages
If your problem is that of working out what the
key components of your essay should be, here
are some tips:

key ideas, key arguments, and key stages are
ideas, arguments or stages that play a major
role in the topic or issue you are writing
about; minor ideas or minor stages support
or describe key ideas or key stages
Key ideas, arguments and stages – tips

A useful starting-point in working out the key
components of your essay is to decide
whether the topic you are writing about
mostly involves key ideas, key arguments, or
key stages in a process
Key ideas, arguments and stages - tips

pay attention to headings and sub-headings
in the material you will base your essay on;
headings and sub-headings can provide clues
about what the key ideas, arguments or
stages are
Key ideas, arguments and stages – tips

reflect on the themes and messages of the
course – these can sometimes help you select
key components for your essay; if your
research material can be interpreted in
different ways, choose the interpretation that
best connects with issues emphasized in the
course. The way you interpret your research
material will influence your choice of key
ideas
Organizational patterns
If your problem is that of deciding how to
arrange key components in your essay, then it
is useful to think about which of the following
three organizational patterns is appropriate:
 spatial
 chronological
 logical
Spatial patterns
If your essay involves description or analysis of
an object or stretch of land, you can impose a
spatial pattern on your key ideas. Spatial
patterns are particularly useful for essays that
involve:
describing/evaluating visual art
 describing/evaluating geographical features
 environmental studies/analyses
 describing/evaluating architecture.

Spatial patterns
For geographical descriptions and
environmental studies, you can impose a
North-South-East-West pattern on the land you
are writing about. Point out that you will begin
by discussing a particular area, the North, say,
followed by another area, the South, say, and
so on. In this way, your key ideas fall into
easily arranged groups (northern, southern,
eastern and western).
Spatial patterns
For description and evaluation of visual art or
architecture, you can impose a top-to-bottom,
bottom-to-top, or side-to-side pattern on the
object or feature you’re writing about. Point out
that you will discuss a particular aspect, the
top, say, followed by another aspect, the
middle, say, and so on. In this way, your key
ideas fall into easily arranged groups (top,
middle, bottom, or left, right).
Spatial patterns
Some geographical/environmental features
come with their own spatial patterns. If your
essay is about a river, you can order key ideas
according to upstream-downstream and
river-riverbank patterns.
Spatial patterns
If your essay is about a mountain, you can
order key ideas according to a
summit-middle-base pattern.
If you are writing about a
forest, you can order key
ideas according to an upper-middle-lowercanopy-forest-floor pattern!
Spatial patterns
Visual art and architecture also often come with
their own spatial patterns.
If you are writing about a
famous statue, you can
order key ideas according
to a head-torso-legs pattern.
Spatial patterns
If you are writing about
the architecture of a
church, you can order
key ideas according to a
steeple-roof-walls
pattern.
EASY!
Chronological patterns
If your essay involves describing or analyzing
events or stages, you can impose a
chronological pattern on your key ideas or
arguments. Chronological patterns are
particularly useful for essays involving:
description/analysis
 description/analysis
 description/analysis
 description/analysis

of
of
of
of
historical events
geological processes
chemical processes
biological processes.
Chronological patterns
For description and evaluation of historical
events, impose an earlier-later pattern on the
stages that lead up to or constitute the event.
Your key ideas then fall into easily ordered
earlier-later groups. Point out in your essay
that you will discuss the most important stages
leading up to or constituting the event.
Chronological patterns
For description and analysis of a geological,
chemical, or biological process, impose an
earlier-later pattern on the stages that
constitute the process. Your key ideas then fall
into easily ordered earlier-later groups. Indicate
the order of the stages discussed.
Logical patterns
If your essay involves explaining or analyzing a
concept, you can impose a logical pattern on
your key ideas and arguments. Logical patterns
are particularly useful for essays primarily
involving:
explanation of an idea
 description and critique of an argument
 explanation and critique of a social, literary,
or philosophical topic

Logical patterns
The explanation of an idea involves translating
it into other ideas that elucidate its meaning.
Suppose that you had to write an essay on the
topic of global warming. The following slide
shows this idea translated into ideas that go to
make up the idea of global warming.
Logical patterns
Kyoto
protocol
Greenhouse
effect
Alternatives
to fossil fuel
Drought
Caused
naturally?
Flooding
Global
warming
Increased
carbon
dioxide in
atmosphere
Spread of
insect-carried
diseases
Climate
change
Caused by
human activity?
Rising
sea-level
Logical patterns
A logical pattern has not yet been imposed on
the ideas that make up the idea of global
warming. First, ideas that are particularly
relevant to each other must be grouped
together. This has been done on the next slide.
Logical patterns
Caused naturally?
Climate change.
Caused by human activity?
Rising sea-levels.
Kyoto protocol.
Flooding.
Drought.
Greenhouse effect.
Spread of
insect-carried
diseases.
Alternatives to
fossil fuel.
Increased carbon
dioxide in atmosphere.
Logical patterns
Next, the ideas within each group must be put
into a sequence that makes sense. It makes
better sense to discuss drought and flooding
after introducing climate change. It makes
better sense to discuss flooding after
discussing rising sea-levels. And it makes
better sense to discuss the spread of
insect-carried diseases after discussing climate
change. You will notice that the ideas in each
group have already been sequenced!
Logical patterns
Finally, the groups of sequenced ideas must
themselves be sequenced in a way that makes
the most sense. This has been done on the
next two slides.
Easy!
Logical patterns

It makes little sense to discuss climate change
without first setting it within the context of the
greenhouse effect.

Unless the possible effects are explained first, the
reader cannot know the importance of whether the
greenhouse effect is caused by human activity.

If the possible causes of the greenhouse effect are
not explained first, how can the reader know why
alternatives to fossil fuels are important?
Greenhouse effect.
Increased carbon dioxide in atmosphere.
Climate change.
Rising sea-levels.
Flooding.
Drought.
Spread of insect-carried diseases.
Caused naturally?
Caused by human activity?
Kyoto protocol.
Alternatives to fossil fuel.
Logical patterns
The description and critique of an argument
involves explaining and evaluating ideas, and
explaining and evaluating the inferential
connections between them. Argument structure
provides a logical pattern you can follow during
your description and critique of an argument.
Logical patterns
Basic argument structures:
Simple
Serial
Reason
Reason
Reason + Reason
Conclusion
Reason
Conclusion
Conclusion
Linked
Logical patterns
Basic argument structures:
Convergent
Reason
Reason
Conclusion
Divergent
Reason
Conclusion Conclusion
Logical patterns
Many argument structures are combinations of
basic patterns:
Reason + Reason + Reason
Reason
Reason
Reason
Reason
Conclusion
Logical patterns
An argument consists of a conclusion
and of reasons (evidence) that are supposed
to support the conclusion. Your key ideas will
be your descriptions and evaluation of these
reasons, together with your evaluation of their
inferential connections with each other and
with the conclusion. Hence, the organization of
your essay can mirror the structure of the
argument you are writing about.
Logical patterns
Explanation and critique of a social, literary or
philosophical topic will combine explanation of
ideas and evaluation of arguments. Hence, the
body of the essay is organized by sequencing
key ideas according to relevance and clarity (as
we did with global warming), and by mirroring
the structure of arguments at places where
you discuss concepts, reasons, conclusions,
and their inferential connections.
Combined organizational patterns
Often, the body of an essay is best organized
by using a combination of organizational
patterns. If you are required to write a critical
essay on the effects of urban development
close to the Oak Ridges Moraine, you may use
a combination of spatial patterns (to describe
key features of the area), chronological
patterns (to describe chemical and biological
processes), and logical patterns (to explain key
ideas and evaluate arguments).
Impact!
Organize your groups of key ideas to create the
greatest impact on the reader. Suppose you have to
write an essay on urban development near the
Oak Ridges Moraine, and that you have
discovered three negative chemical/biological
effects, one minor, the other not so minor, and
the last one devastating! You have organized your key
ideas concerning each of these effects according to a
chronological pattern. But you still have a choice
about which effect to discuss first, second, and so on.
Impact!
MINOR EFFECT
Key ideas organized
chronologically
EFFECTS
SEQUENCED
FOR
IMPACT
LESS MINOR EFFECT
Key ideas organized
chronologically
DEVASTATING EFFECT
Key ideas organized
chronologically
Impact!
If you began by discussing the devastating
effect and finished with a discussion of the
minor effect, the body of your essay would end
on an anticlimax. This must be avoided. Always
sequence components so that they give the
impression of a build up to a climax.
Impact!
Key ideas and arguments can be sequenced
for impact using these scales:
Least important
Less recent
Least persuasive
Simplest
Most important
More recent
Most persuasive
Most complex
Impact!
It is not always easy to see how components
can be arranged to have an impact. If no key
idea or argument seems to be more
important, recent, persuasive, or simpler than
any other, then…
pretend otherwise, for the
sake of rhetorical effect!!
Frequently asked questions
1. It seems like a jumble of unrelated
facts – help!
You may be trying to sequence facts before
having sorted them into groups. Think about
what the main ideas are first. Next, try to
group the minor facts according to the main
ideas they belong to. Now you can think about
sequencing the minor facts within each group.
Finally, you can sequence the main ideas
themselves.
Frequently asked questions
2. All the facts seem like main ideas to
me – help!
You may need to impose an organizational pattern
(see earlier slides) on the topic you are writing about,
in order to create groups of related facts. Once you
have worked out groups of related facts, you should
find it easier to identify main ideas. You should also
note any headings, sub-headings, pictures or
diagrams in your reading material, as these may give
clues about main ideas that you can use to group the
minor facts.
Frequently asked questions
3. I’ve worked out the main ideas, but I
am not sure how to organize them
Well done for accomplishing the hard part!
Organizing your main ideas is not difficult.
Simply organize them according to spatial,
chronological, or logical patterns (see earlier
slides), or use combinations of these patterns.
Frequently asked questions
4. I have to write about an argument –
where do I start?!
Any argument has a structure (see earlier
slides) that you can exploit in order to
organize your key ideas. Begin by discussing
the conclusion, and work your way up through
the reasons. Or start with the reasons and
work your way down to the conclusion.
Simple! For more on arguments, see the BWC
presentation on how to argue for a thesis.
Frequently asked questions
5. Should I compare and contrast two
things in the same paragraph or in
different paragraphs?
There is really no advantage to doing it one
way or the other. But if the two things being
compared are easy to deal with, it makes
sense to compare and contrast them in the
same paragraph. If the two things being
compared are complex, then it might be
easier to give them separate paragraphs.
Other sources and resources

Make an appointment for the Bethune Writing Centre
(go to Master’s office at 205 Bethune to book a slot
or call 416 736 2100 ext. 22035)

Visit York Centre for Academic Writing online resources at:
http://www.arts.yorku.ca/caw/resources.html

The following books may be useful:
Stewart, K. L., Kowler, M. E., & Bullock, C. (1985). Essay
Writing For Canadian Students (2nd ed.). Scarborough, Ont.:
Prentice-Hall. Call number: LB 2369 S74
Troyka, Lynn Quitman (2002). Simon & Schuster handbook
for writers (3rd ed.). Scarborough, Ont.: Prentice-Hall.
Call number: PE 1408 T697