Structuring an essay is a lot of work. Allowing an idea to find its own form takes time, trial and error, diligence, and patience. However, even though you can't give writers a formula for each idea, you can offer them strategies that will make developing its form easier.

Bad Habits From High School: The Five-Paragraph Theme

Many writers have been taught in high school that there are very simple formulae for structuring ideas. The most common structure is the five-paragraph theme, or some variation of it. The five-paragraph theme begins with a general introduction; the thesis is always the last sentence in the introductory paragraph; three supporting paragraphs follow, each beginning with a topic sentence that is followed by three to five developing sentences; finally comes the conclusion, which basically restates the introduction. Of course, there can be more than five paragraphs. In fact, some writers produce very long essays that follow this basic structure.

What's wrong with the five-paragraph theme? To start, it's formulaic. Not all ideas fit well into the five-paragraph theme. Imagine, if you will, that a teacher asks you to write an essay on the most important event of your life (or an essay on Hamlet's indecision, for that matter). She requires you to fit your essay into a five-paragraph format, thesis and topic sentences all in their proper places. It seems absurd, no? But when they arrive at college and hear their professors shout, "Death to the five-paragraph theme!" students generally shudder. If not that formula, then which one? And when the professor goes on to say that there is no formula, that in fact each idea must come to find its own form, students collapse in agony. It sounds like a lot of work!

As you know, structuring an essay is a lot of work. Allowing an idea to find its own form takes time, trial and error, diligence, and patience. However, even though you can't give writers a formula for each idea, you can offer them strategies that will make developing its form easier.

The Challenge of Structuring a Paper

The structure of a paper can take a long time to work out. While the idea for a paper can come in a flash, finding the actual form that the idea will take on the page can require hours or even days. How does a writer find a structure?

She can begin by listening very closely to her idea. If it's a good idea, it will suggest its own form. But a writer needs patience, diligence, and practice to "hear" an idea emerging. You can help her. First, read the paper and listen closely. What structure does the idea suggest? If you have trouble seeing a form, it might be that there is a fundamental flaw in the argument, or that the thesis is not strong enough to carry the argument, or that the paragraphs are unraveling into incoherence, or ... well, the list goes on and on. At this point you should probably consider some of these tried-and-true strategies for developing a structure for the essay.

Using Outlines and Diagrams in the Tutoring Session

Most of us use some kind of outline or diagram as we write. But when - and how - should we use an outline or diagram in the tutoring session? Situations that call for outlining typically occur when writers haven't thought out the implications of their argument. The writer may not have discovered yet the "umbrella" point that gathers all the ideas together under the rubric of a single argument. Or the paragraphs may be holding three or four different points, which need to be sorted out. Outlines and diagrams can help in all of these situations.

Generally, it's a good idea in a tutoring session to let the writer do the outlining or diagramming himself. You might ask the writer to reconstruct the thesis and the outline from memory while you are reading the paper. You can then compare what the writer comes up with against the paper you've just read. Often, the problem with structure will be immediately apparent. Ask questions that get the writer to think closely about what he's written, and how it differs from what he wants to convey. Watch closely as he tries to make order out of what is not yet orderly, and suggest connections where you see them.

Remember: an outline or diagram should be understood as a flexible plan, one that can accommodate new discoveries. A writer can use outlines and diagrams to guide him in his writing, but he should also be prepared to discard or to revise the plan at a moment's notice.

Testing the Topic Sentences

Sometimes when a paper's structure seems muddled, the quickest way to check where something's gone wrong is to underline the thesis and all the topic sentences, and then to read them aloud, in sequence, to the tutee. Ask two questions:

  1. Does what you've just read adequately reflect the argument that the writer was trying to make? If not, then something is wrong with the structure of the paper. Consider each topic sentence in turn, and see if you can revise so that the sentence more accurately reflects the argument.
  2. Do the topic sentences string together coherently to support the thesis? When you put the thesis and all of the topic sentences together, they should read more or less like a coherent paragraph. If they don't, then something is wrong with the structure of the paper. Try to see what went wrong. Is one of the sentences irrelevant? Work with the writer to make it relevant, or discard that idea from the paper. Do the sentences seem to loop back on each other, going nowhere? Rework them so that they form a more linear structure. If you fix the topic sentences so that they work together to create a coherent paragraph, the paper should be coherent, too.

Note: This method of underlining topic sentences can reveal two different types of writing problems: problems with structure and problems with paragraphs. Be sure you've correctly diagnosed the problem before you begin tutoring.

Additional Strategies for Organizing Muddled Ideas

When you tutor, you will need to be as inventive as you can be when approaching strategies for structure. Sometimes it helps to consider the writer's personality or habits of mind before you recommend a strategy.

  • Is the writer a scientific thinker? Perhaps you can use scientific models (hypothesis, proof, etc.) to help the writer find a structure.
  • Is the writer an order freak? Suggest that she try using note cards - or even different colored note cards - when she researches her ideas. If, on the other hand, she's ordered the life right out of her paper, suggest that she put the note cards aside and freewrite for a few minutes on the matter of the structure of her argument. Sometimes breaking habits are as important as strengthening the skills a writer already has.
  • Does the writer work better with technological support? There are software programs that help writers to organize their research and to structure their papers.
  • Is the writer an avid reader? Help him to find some short prose models that he can imitate or adapt.
  • Is the writer a visual learner? Tell her to use colors when mapping her ideas.

To give you a sense of how helpful these kinds of strategies can be: I once had a student who wrote tremendously insightful papers but who jumbled all of her ideas. Idea A would emerge in paragraph two, re-surface in five, come up again in eight. Ideas B, C, and D were similarly scattered. After several exasperating conferences with this student, I told her to go through the paper with colored magic markers and to "color" yellow every point that related to idea A, to color blue every point that related to idea B, etc. For her, this strategy was a godsend. She wrote very good papers for the rest of the term and was still using this technique when we last spoke.