Our third recommendation for helping students incorporate more structure into their writing is to have them create a rather unconventional form of outline. Instead of composing an outline before writing their essay, we suggest that they try creating one after a full draft has been completed instead. The main reason for this is because it is often far more fruitful to think about structure once most of your ideas have already been set down on the page, instead of in advance.
This can also be an especially helpful exercise for anyone struggling with sequencing of their paragraphs or ideas. While an essay is absolutely dependent on logic and the ideas presented must logically follow one another, part of the reason we write is to order our thoughts for ourselves. Often when we write a first draft, most of the material set down on the page is related to our main idea or thesis in some way, but the thoughts aren’t always perfectly ordered. Hence, outlining retrospectively.
The first time I ever tried this exercise was when I was working on my senior thesis for my undergraduate degree. I found myself struggling to rearrange paragraphs within a 3-page subsection of a 30-page word document so out of frustration I decided to print the 3 pages at issue and cut out each of the paragraphs. I then began to arrange and rearrange the paragraphs, shuffling them about until the order was perfect. After that, it took virtually no time at all to go back into the word document and copy and paste appropriately, and voila – problem solved.
I’ve also used the retrospective outline with high school students and I find it works well for this age group because when a student is asked to write an outline before all of their ideas are fleshed out, the entire writing process can sometimes come to a screeching halt and they may lose whatever momentum they had previously gathered. A student may also wonder how they can possibly write an entire essay if they couldn’t even write a coherent outline, and become paralyzed.
In such a scenario, I would ask the student to ditch the outline for the time being and first write their essay, as some students have an easier time sorting out their ideas in actual prose than in skeletal form. Then later we would go back to the outline and map out their argument in outline form to ensure that their argument is sound and that they are actually saying what they had wanted to in their writing.
To begin this exercise, a student should write on a blank sheet of paper what the function is for each paragraph of their draft and what that paragraph contributes to the overall argument. They can ask: if this paragraph were missing, what would be lost from the argument? Why might its omission compromise the validity of my conclusion? What is the main point I’m trying to make here? Then, if a reordering of ideas is necessary – they can cut apart the summaries of each paragraph and see what can and should reasonably be rearranged. Likely, not every single paragraph will need to be repositioned, so target more problematic areas. If you have an especially thorny section, you could even do this with sentences in a paragraph.
The retrospective outline then helps to illuminate where the gaps and redundancies in an argument may be. When the “meat” of each paragraph has been written out, the argument should read like a proposition and each item should follow stepwise from the one before. (One way to test this is to show the retrospective outline to a friend or teacher and have them work through it to ensure that the reasoning is both sound and complete.) It’s easy to think that you’ve stated something explicitly when you haven’t, and it’s also easy to become attached to sentences that are more or less irrelevant to your final argument. These sorts of errors can become much more readily apparent with an ex post facto outline!
Have you ever struggled with outlining? We'd love to hear about your solutions in a comment below!
Our next recommendation for helping students organize their writing is to have them write beyond the traditional argumentative essay. While knowing how to organize essays is important, we also recommend that students craft structured pieces outside of formal essays. These other forms may be less academically traditional, but they require no less care and attention. And even though these creative assignments will likely require at least as much organizational effort on the part of the student, this sort of writing often feels much more open and accessible to middle and high school students.
This kind of project gives students the opportunity to learn about a form synthetically by working through it for themselves. They may also have the chance to approach their work with clearer vision. (Ideally that vision will be unclouded by any of the frustrations that often dog the argumentative essay.) I often find that students resent working with a thesis and topic sentences because it feels stifling and even prefabricated. With a more “creative” assignment, however, they can venture into – what is to them – a wide and yet unfamiliar territory. Experience working within different modalities can also improve a writer’s organizational dexterity. Eventually they will learn to use the restrictions of a structure to their advantage.
Instead of assigning students 5-paragraph essay after dreaded 5-paragraph essay, consider implementing a new kind of assignment. Ask them to write an additional scene for a play, a newspaper article, legal briefs, or a radio broadcast. Other ideas include political speeches, a letter from one character to another, a debate between characters, or something else altogether!
To give you more ideas: when I was in 10th grade, I remember writing metered monologues for an English class. These monologues were from the perspectives of supporting characters in The Odyssey such as Telemachus and Nausicaa. In order to write them, I had to structure my writing carefully, with a clear sequence to the thoughts. Each monologue included an opening, a progression of ideas, a climax, and then a resolution. Not to mention the challenge of writing in dactylic hexameter!
I once wrote (and delivered!) a sermon on the Parable of the Sower while studying the Gospels in high school. It was so different from writing an analytical essay, and in many ways more challenging. But, I also found myself much more eager to write it and to think through my argument carefully. It was intriguing simply because it was something other than what I was accustomed to writing. The form was both well known and simultaneously so foreign to me. I had heard many sermons before, but never once attempted to write one prior to that assignment. It was an extremely demanding yet exciting project.
You can certainly ask students to write on more focused prompts, too. As an English teacher, I once had 7th graders draft short “legal briefs.” The topic was Mark Antony’s guilt or innocence in regards to the assassination of Caesar while reading Julius Caesar. The students argued whether or not Antony was guilty in Caesar’s death, essentially answering a yes or no question. The students loved this particular assignment, and approached their pieces with remarkable care and creativity.
Before the 7th graders wrote their legal briefs, we did create one example as a class on a book we had read earlier in the year so the students had an idea of what to aim for. I also gave them specific guidelines as to the number of reasons and textual references they would each need in their individual brief. They knew that they would also need to write a compelling opening to their argument, as well as a sound closing. The most thorough and convincing brief on either side of the argument would be read aloud in a mock trial – an extra incentive to do well!
The students were far more thorough in their reasoning for this exercise than they would have been if I had asked them to write a short argumentative essay, and not only that, we all had a blast during the process. Of course I still asked them to write short argumentative essays throughout the year, but this assignment was a great way for them to write something that was both highly structured and immensely enjoyable for all of us.
Please let us know in a comment below what your most memorable non-essay writing assignment has been to date or what unconventional writing projects you hope to undertake with students in the future!