Essays Writing Organization Strategies

Focus Question: What are the organizational strategies for expository writing?

Part 1

Begin the lesson by reviewing informational writing, topic, audience, and purpose. Have students watch the “Did You Know” video by Karl Fisch, and then discuss with a partner what they think the topic, purpose, and audience are for this informational piece.

After partner discussion, have each pair share what they believe is the topic, purpose, and audience for this piece. Then ask students to evaluate the effectiveness of presenting the information using this medium—video posted to a Web site.

Next, introduce students to the different organizational strategies used for expository writing. This understanding is critical in order for students to apply the learning to their content and make decisions on how to organize their thoughts in written work. Through the discussion of class models and their own writing, students will add to their understanding of the writing process.

Distribute copies of the organizational strategies definitions sheet to students and put it on the overhead projector (L-C-4-2_Organizational Strategies Definitions.doc).For this unit, students will need to make an organizational decision from these four choices about their information piece:

Compare/Contrast: An organizational strategy that uncovers differences and similarities between two subjects.

Problem/Solution: An organizational strategy that addresses a specific problem/issue and progresses to investigate possible solutions and/or outcomes.

Process Analysis (Sequence): An organizational strategy that uses sequence and order of action to explain or relate a process or series of events.

Cause/Effect: An organizational strategy that discusses a particular cause, or series of causes, and then relates effects to the causes to show their relationship.

Say to students, “Expository writing is organized in a variety of ways, depending upon the topic and the author’s purpose. These are some of the most common organizational patterns. How do you decide which pattern to use? The answer has to do with your topic and purpose. Let’s say your topic was downloading music. If you wanted to explain how to download music, then your organizational pattern would be Process Analysis. However, I could choose to compare and contrast different providers of downloading music, or I could compare prices, Web sites, and the general experience in using them.”

“So, if my topic were searching for an apartment to rent, I would have to consider how each organizational strategy changes the direction of my writing. I’ll talk through each to give you an idea of this:

  • Compare/Contrast: I could write about a previous apartment I’d lived in and compare it to the most recent as a means to see where they overlap and what the pros and cons are.
  • Problem/Solution: With this strategy, my first thought is to write about the lack of communication in some apartment buildings and how this doesn’t add to a sense of community. I could think of ways to promote more interaction, possible events, or just simple gestures.
  • Process Analysis (Sequence): A thought comes to me right away in this case. I will write about the process of applying for an apartment, all the way from first finding the vacancy in the paper to contacting the property manager and signing a lease.
  • Cause/Effect: Since I’ve lived in the country and now the city, perhaps I’ll write about how moving to a city and living there has changed my experiences or perspectives as an individual.”

Tell students: “You have found a topic in which you are invested. You have refined that topic; you know the purpose for your writing and the audience. Now it is time to think of organizing your information to be most effective. Your organizational strategy helps you decide HOW to present your information. For instance, if my organizational strategy is compare/contrast, then two things are being compared, so there is a back-and-forth feature to the writing that helps to decide its organization.”

“One of the most important choices you will make in writing an expository essay will be choosing one of these organizational strategies. I’m now going to hand out a sample excerpt of expository writing. We’ll then discuss the organizational strategy being used and why it is effective for the topic and purpose.”  

Place a copy of a problem/solution writing sample on the overhead for reference. Distribute copies of a sample problem/solution essay. You can use your own writing sample from a previous class or one from Stanford’s “Information about Expository Writing” Web site

Ask, “Could I have a volunteer to read the problem/solution excerpt?” Choose one student to read and direct the rest of the class to follow along. When students are finished, direct them to your overhead copy. “For problem/solution writing, the most critical piece is a directly statedproblem. In this excerpt, what is the writer’s stated problem?” Once the key piece of a problem is identified, ask students to identify the thesis statement. Be sure to offer encouragement to use specific terms and to speak critically while addressing the excerpt. Underline or highlight key parts of the writing sample while discussion goes on. The point is that students should begin to recognize the elements of expository writing and feel comfortable in identifying them to gauge the effectiveness of the writing.

Distribute graphic organizers for problem/solution to students; you may use one of your own, one from the Stanford Web site or the one in this unit’s Resources folder (L-C-4-2_Problem Solution Graphic.doc). “Looking at this writing sample, let’s discuss how this model can be applied.” Ask for student responses in class discussion to note the problems. After this, ask the class to identify the solutions and results. The point is to talk through the development of an essay with students so they can see the logic and order that is used. Underline or highlight key parts of the essay while discussion goes on. This organizational strategy works well with addressing social issues, current events, ongoing debates, etc.

Next hand out a graphic organizer for process analysis (sequence); you may use one of your own, one from the Stanford Web site or the one in this unit’s Resources folder (L-C-4-2_Process Analysis Graphic.doc). Display a writing sample on the overhead; you can use a writing sample from a previous class, or one from Stanford’s “Information about Expository Writing” Web site a student volunteer read it aloud to the class.

Ask students, “If I want to know if this writing is using the process analysis or sequence organizational strategy, what elements am I looking for?” Search out some form of the answer, “It is going to tell a series of events.” or “It uses sequence to show how one event leads to another.” Once the key elements of events are identified, ask students if they can identify the thesis statement. Note how the excerpt progresses from one event to the next and why this is advantageous for the writing. Underline or highlight key parts to the essay while discussion goes on. Have students complete their graphic organizer for this writing sample. This organizational strategy works well with historical writing, stages of action, linear procedure, biography, etc.

Assign students to four-person groups.Have each group read and discuss the excerpts from papers that use cause/effect and compare/contrast strategies in their introductions (L-C-4-2_Cause Effect Excerpt.doc and L-C-4-2_Compare Contrast Excerpt.doc). Have them note the topic, the intended audience, and the purpose for each introduction. Then have students discuss what supporting information should be added to the samples as they complete a graphic organizer for each strategy (L-C-4-2_Cause Effect Graphic.doc and L-C-4-2_Compare Contrast Graphic.doc). Circulate around the room to assist groups that have questions or difficulty identifying elements of the writing. After students have completed this task, ask a representative from each group to share the group’s findings with the class. Ask students to explain why each strategy is or is not effective for the topic, purpose, and audience.

Ask the class if they’re beginning to see how the organization relates to the topic, the intended audience and purpose, and use of supporting details. If they’re having difficulty, take the opportunity to connect the topics they’ve found with how the organizational strategy benefits the expository writing.

Part 2

Model the thought process involved in drafting an expository essay, including choice of topic, purpose, and audience and how these elements influence the choice of organizational strategy. You may choose to use the sample essay “Finding a New Apartment” (L-C-4-2_Finding a New Apartment.doc), or you may use a sample essay from a previous student. Hand out the student writing sample and an appropriate graphic organizer (e.g., the Process Analysis organizer for the essay “Finding a New Apartment”).

Sample script for using the writing sample “Finding a New Apartment”:

“Now I’ll share what I’ve come up with for my topic about searching for a new apartment. After thinking about the different organizational strategies, I decided to go with process analysis. I’m going to write about the steps and sequence of events that lead up to getting a new apartment. I jotted down important details I should include, like apartment-hunting Web sites that would be useful to search through, meeting with property managers, researching neighborhoods and buildings, inspecting the apartment, questions to ask the caretakers, and how to go about agreeing to a lease contract. I then asked myself, ‘Does the process analysis organization still work with these details?’ I would say ‘yes,’ because it follows a sequence of events. I’m now ready to plug my information into the process analysis organization. I realize that problem/solution wouldn’t work because I’m not addressing a problem but a process. Also, cause/effect wouldn’t work because the interest isn’t in the initiating cause but the process. This is about the steps and events. Finally, would compare/contrast have worked? Definitely not. There isn’t a comparison to another apartment. The focus is on the order of events and steps in finding the new apartment.”

Hand out a student writing sample for students to read. Have each student complete a graphic organizer for this student sample. When students have completed this task, ask them to discuss the sample, the choices made about topic, purpose, audience, and organizational strategy.

“Now it’s time to look at your own topic and supporting details to establish which organizational strategy you will use. Look at the Graphic Organizer handouts. You have an example of each of the four organizational strategies. I’d like you to review your topic and supporting details and run a couple ‘tests’ with your information. Try to ‘plug’ your information into each of the organizational strategies to see HOW the writing might be shaped. Feel free to write notes and fill the pages in as much as you need. When you’re done, review the pages to decide which organizational strategy you believe works best.” Have students complete and turn in the exit ticket for this lesson prior to the end of class (L-C-4-2_Exit Ticket.doc).


In English one of the most important strategies in writing is organization of content. A strong English writer is a guide to his or her reader leading him or her along the logical arguments in the piece. Following are six ways to do this effectively. If your students can understand and apply these organizational strategies, they will be far along the road to successful writing in English.

  • Chronology

    Chronology, or time, is the most straightforward way to organize content in a piece of writing. Students should easily grasp the concept of starting at the earliest historical event and progressing toward the most recent or vice versa. This is also a good organization strategy when examining the change in one element (e.g. gender in literature) over time or to show how one idea, place or thing has changed over time.

  • Familiarity and Importance

    Unlike chronology, organizing content by either familiarity or importance is more subjective. In this type of organization, students begin with the most familiar topic or concept and move toward the most obscure, the least important toward the most important. They can also begin with the most simple and move to the most complex. This type of organization will build momentum in writing. You should warn your students to always keep in mind the target audience when organizing by familiarity to be most effective. Though eating frog may be quite familiar in a restaurant in Beijing, most Americans have not ever had the experience and would view the idea of it quite unfamiliar. It would therefore be placed toward the end of the written piece.

  • Compare and Contrast

    Comparisons look at the similarities between two or more items, contrasts look at the differences. Though an organizational strategy may be to compare and contrast, stress to your students that this is never the purpose in writing. This organizational strategy works well when the writer is trying to present one item as superior to another, to explain an unknown item by comparing it to a known item, or to show how something has changed. Most academic papers both compare and contrast rather than focusing on just one or the other. There are two ways to organize writing when comparing and contrasting. A point by point organization takes each element of comparison or contrast and examines both items in relation to it separately. For example, a writer may examine the science of both food and beauty, then the social roles of food and beauty and then the psychological importance of both food and beauty. A block organization, on the other hand, presents all the information about one item before moving on to the next. In the same piece, block organization would present the topic of food and examine its science, social role and psychological importance. Then the writer would examine beauty on those same three points. If students are comparing more than two points, point by point organization will be more effective.

  • General and Particular

    This type of organization takes broad generalizations and moves towards specific statements or starts with specific statements and compiles them into a general conclusion or statement. This is not the same as having a thesis statement and supporting it with details. One example of broad to general would be to examine the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe as a whole and move towards specific issues he includes in this writing such as death and revenge. Narrow to broad examination might begin examining state laws and then move to national laws. This type of organization can be used effectively when examining a larger item along with its component pieces.

  • Problem and Solution

    A more straightforward organization examines the relationships between problems and solutions. This type of organization will do one of two things. It will state a problem and offer multiple solutions concluding with a recommendation or it will begin with a question, make multiple proposals or attempts and conclude with the outcome. This type of organization is most effective with scientific research where the writer formulates a hypothesis, evaluates the proposals and concludes with a solution to the problem.

  • Cause and Effect

    A cause and effect organizational strategy examines the causal relationships throughout a paper. There are three ways to organize with a cause and effect scheme. The first begins with one event and examines the multiple causes. For example, a student may want to discuss the causes of drug abuse listing peer pressure, medical need and addictive tendencies in the argument. Another student may follow the second strategy which looks at the multiple effects of one course of action or cause. This student may look at the issue of high caloric intake and present the effects of weight gain, insulin imbalance and susceptibility to diabetes. A third strategy for cause and effect organization is a chain of causes and effects which begins with one event and follows the chain reaction to the end result. One example of this might be to examine the chain of events in which the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand led to World War I.

  • You may want to stick with chronology, familiarity and cause/effect with lower level students, but those who wish to be successful in academia or business would do well to understand all of them.

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