Southwest Tennessee Community College      Composition Lessons & Resources        John Friedlander

Some thoughts about principles of organization

Why you want organization . . .

When we talk about effective writing, we often think first about elements like word choice, grammar and mechanics, and content or evidence. But a really important part of effective writing—and effective thinking, too—is clear, logical organization.

Maybe an analogy will help here. I know where every tool and ingredient is in my kitchen, and I can cook pretty efficiently. When I begin a recipe, I bring out all the ingredients, measure them, and line them up in the order in which I’ll use them. Even complicated recipes seem fairly easy once I have everything laid out, and the organization gives me some sense of control.

In the chaos of my garage, on the other hand, I don’t know where anything is, and I’ll leave a faucet dripping for a week because I don’t want to hunt down a screwdriver or a wrench. I find it hard even to imagine more complicated projects. My office looks like a shambles, too—and I’ve wasted a lot of time looking for a book or document that I know is here somewhere. Thinking and acting are both harder when things are disorganized.

The same principle affects you and me as writers and readers. When things are laid out in some sort of order, we can work with them more easily. If we can impose some kind of order on information, the information is easier to talk about, easier to understand, and easier to remember. If you choose a clear, recognizable pattern (for a single paragraph, and also for a whole essay), you find it easier to select details and choose transitions, and you also help your reader discover relationships that connect things, that make things seem more coherent.

How you find organization . . .

Humor me for a moment and agree that organization is really desirable, both in the process of writing and in the product of writing. The remaining problem is figuring out how to create or impose that organization.

My garage is such a mess that I can’t see beyond the clutter, but other people have neat garages, so I know a clean garage is possible. I just need to choose some principle of organization.

I could start by putting all the lawn and garden stuff on the left wall and all the house maintenance stuff on the right wall. Then I could arrange the two sides—maybe all the big stuff (rakes, mower, ladder, tiller, power saw) closer to the garage door, and smaller stuff nearer to the far wall. Or I could arrange everything in alphabetical order, hanging or standing the stuff clockwise from the left wall, around the back, and then back along the right wall. Or I could put supplies on one wall, power tools on another, and manual hand tools on the third. Or I could have a section for gardening, a section for lawn care, a section for exterior house maintenance, and another for interior house maintenance. Maybe I could arrange them in order of frequency of use (if I ever used any of it . . .). Actually, any of those principles of order would help me find stuff in my garage—I just have to choose one principle and impose it.

It’s the same with writing. With any given group of ideas and details, you might use any of a number of principles of organization, and any one of them would help you and your reader. Some will be better than others, of course (I really can’t see alphabetizing the tools and supplies in my garage, even though it would make them easier to find later). The main trick to imposing organization is to know some options and to choose one.

[By the way, another similarity between organizing my garage and organizing writing is the need for some motivation. I don’t want to organize my garage, because I don’t want to do any work around the house to begin with. Leaving the place a mess suits me fine. If I never wanted to write or talk or think, I wouldn’t need to deal with organizing ideas or details. Give some thought to your own motivation as you think about this stuff.]

Patterns of Exposition (vs. Principles of Organization)

If you look in a standard English handbook or examine a typical reader for a composition course, you will find discussions of “patterns of exposition” or “pattern of development” or “rhetorical mode.” Among these patterns are examples and illustrations (exemplification), narration, description, process, comparison and contrast, analogy, cause and effect, classification and division, and definition. These are recognizable patterns that bring order to ideas and evidence, but they are not exclusively patterns of organization. These patterns (or methods or modes) are partially patterns of organization, and partially patterns of development—that is, sometimes they help you organize content; other times they help you find content.

Some of these rhetorical modes do imply basic patterns for organizing information. Underlying organizational patterns seem particularly clear in comparison & contrast [you can look at the online discussion of comparison and contrast to see its basic organizational patterns]; in process [do this, then do this, then do this; or this happens, then this happens, then this happens]; and in cause & effect [this happens, then (as a result) this happens]. Organization is also imposed by definition [narrowing groups of meanings, from the broad class to which the term belongs, to the narrower groups, to the individual distinguishing characteristics], and in most narration [this happened, then this happened, then this happened].

Principles of Organization

I think you can develop a more flexible sense of organization if you also look at some patterns that are more exclusively patterns or principles of organization. You should understand, though, that these four broad principles have many variations, that they sometimes overlap with patterns of development or exposition, and that good writing sometimes combines different methods.

Chronological Order (order of Time)

In chronological order or time order, items, events, or even ideas are arranged in the order in which they occur. This pattern is marked by such transitions as next, then, the following morning, a few hours later, still later, that Wednesday, by noon, when she was seventeen, before the sun rose, that April, and so on.

Chronological order can suit different rhetorical modes or patterns of exposition. It naturally fits in narration, because when we tell a story, we usually follow the order in which events occur. Chronological order applies to process in the same way, because when we describe or explain how something happens or works, we usually follow the order in which the events occur. But chronological order may also apply to example, description, or parts of any other pattern of exposition.

Spatial Order

Another principle of organization is spatial order. In this pattern, items are arranged according to their physical position or relationships. In describing a shelf or desk, I might describe items on the left first, then move gradually toward the right. Describing a room, I might start with what I see as I enter the door, then what I see as I step to the middle of the room, and finally the far side. In explaining some political or social problem, I might discuss first the concerns of the East Coast, then those of the Midwest, then those of the West Coast. Describing a person, I might start at the feet and move up to the head, or just the other way around. This pattern might use such transitions as just to the right, a little further on, to the south of Memphis, a few feet behind, in New Mexico, turning left on the pathway, and so on. Spatial order is pretty common in description, but can also apply to examples, to some comparisons, some classifications [the southern species of this bird . . . ; rhinos in Southeast Asia . . .], some narrations [meanwhile, out on the prairie ], and other forms of exposition as well.

Climactic Order (Order of Importance)

A third common principle of organization is climactic order or order of importance. In this pattern, items are arranged from least important to most important. Typical transitions would include more important, most difficult, still harder, by far the most expensive, even more damaging, worse yet, and so on. This is a flexible principle of organization, and may guide the organization of all or part of example, comparison & contrast, cause & effect, and description.

A variation of climactic order is called psychological order. This pattern or organization grows from our learning that readers or listeners usually give most attention to what comes at the beginning and the end, and least attention to what is in the middle. In this pattern, then, you decide what is most important and put it at the beginning or the end; next you choose what is second most important and put it at the end or the beginning (whichever remains); the less important or powerful items are then arranged in the middle. If the order of importance followed 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, with 5 being most important, psychological order might follow the order 4, 3, 1, 2, 5.

Still other principles of organization based on emphasis include general-to-specific order, specific-to general order, most-familiar-to-least-familiar, simplest-to-most-complex, order of frequency, order of familiarity, and so on.

Topical Order

A fourth broad principle of organization is called topical order, and this is sort of a catchall pattern. It refers to organization that emerges from the topic itself. For example, a description of a computer might naturally involve the separate components of the central processing unit, the monitor, and the keyboard, while a discussion of a computer purchase might discuss needs, products, vendors, and service. A discussion of a business might explore product, customer, and location, and so on. Topical order, then, simply means an order that arises from the nature of the topic itself. Transitions in this pattern will be a little vague—things like another factor, the second component, in addition, and so on.

I’m not sure any single list can identify all of the different logical ways of organizing information. You may have forms in your workplace that impose a certain order on how an event or action is reported. Many people trying to persuade others to change policy or behavior often examine the issue in the order of need or problem first, then the benefits of the change, then the mechanics or ease of implementing the change. You may see a question-answer pattern, a problem-solution pattern, or sometimes a solution-problem pattern. You will also see (and use) combinations of patterns as your ideas and purposes become more complex.

You do need to see, though, that imposing order on information makes the information easier to talk about, easier to understand, and easier to remember. If you choose a clear, recognizable pattern (on the level of the single paragraph, and also on the level of the whole essay body), you guide yourself in selecting details and choosing transitions, and you also guide your reader in discovering relationships that connect things, that make things seem more coherent. [You may find it useful to look again at the online material on effective development paragraphs—it includes some simple examples of how different principles of organization can be imposed.]

 

Principle of Organization*

Associated
Patterns of Development
or Rhetorical Modes
**

Sample Transitions***

chronological order

narration, process, examples and illustrations, cause & effect

next; later; the following Tuesday; afterwards; by noon; when she had finally digested the giant burrito; as soon as; in 1998

spatial order

description, examples & illustrations

just to the right; a little further on; to the south of Memphis; a few feet behind; directly on the bridge of his nose and a centimeter above his gaping, hairy nostrils; turning left on the pathway

climactic order

examples & illustrations, description, comparison & contrast, analogy

more importantly; best of all; still worse; a more effective approach; even more expensive; even more painful than passing a kidney stone; the least wasteful; occasionally, frequently, regularly

topical order

classification & division, comparison & contrast, analogy, definition, examples & illustrations

the first element; another key part; a third common principle of organization; Brent also objected to Stella’s breath

 

*A simplified list. Be sure to recognize that that these principles offer many variations. (Occasionally a writer moves backward in time, using reverse chronological order. Climactic order can include psychological order and other variants (the group of transitions, "occasionally, frequently, regularly," for example, shows an order of frequency).

**Another simplified list. As topics, audiences, and purposes change, writers discover wide varieties of ways to develop material and to organize it, and they often combine different methods of development and different principles of organization.

***These examples barely scratch the surface—I’m just trying to give you a feel for how the principles might be identified or reinforced. Please note, too, that not all transitions are related to principles of order. Transitions like "for example," "another way of defining," "just as," "a similar process," "as a result." and "because of" reinforce patterns of development rather than principles of organization.