Writing Organizing Principles Study Guide

Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Writing Organizing Principles Practice Exercises


Authors can organize their ideas, arguments, or plots in a variety of ways. One of the basic organizing principles is time, and you'll learn how writers organize ideas chronologically. The content could also be presented in order of importance, starting with either the most important or the least important point. In this lesson you'll learn to recognize these organizational patterns.

There are many ways to tell a story. Some stories start in the middle and flash back to the beginning. A few stories actually start at the end and tell the story in reverse. But most of the time, stories start at the beginning, describing what happened first and then what happened next, and next, and so on until the end. When writers tell a story in the order in which things happened, they are using chronological order.

Another common organizational pattern is order of importance. With this pattern, writers use rank instead of time as their organizing principle. That is, the first idea a writer describes isn't what happened first; it's the idea that's most or least important. Writers can start with the most important idea and then work down the line to the least important idea. Or, they can do the opposite—start with the least important idea and build up to the most important.

Keeping Track of Time: Transitions

Much of what you read is arranged in chronological order. Newspaper and magazine articles, instructions and procedures, and essays about personal experiences usually use this pattern. In fact, several of the passages you've read so far—about Wilma Rudolph, Goran Kropp, and the history of bicycles—use time to organize ideas. First, we learned about Wilma's childhood illnesses, then her struggle to learn to walk again as a teenager, and then her Olympic successes as a young woman. Similarly, we read about Goran Kropp's journey to Mount Everest (first), his ascent up the mountain (second), and his return to Sweden (third). The bicycle passage relates the history of bicycles from their invention in 1818 through several stages of redesign.

Each of these passages provides several clues to show the chronological order. Transitional words and phrases connect the ideas and events within the text. For example, the bicycle passage uses dates to tell us the order in which the bicycle evolved. Without these dates and transitional phrases, we would have no idea of the time frame in which these changes in design took place. In fact, transitions are so important that we'd often be lost without them.

The Right Sequence of Events

Transitions are very important, but even transitions can't do much for a passage if the ideas are all out of order. Imagine, for example, that you were trying to follow a recipe that didn't list the steps in the proper sequence. You'd probably end up ordering a pizza instead! If the items aren't in the proper sequence—if you aren't told the correct order for doing things—you're going to have lots of trouble.

One of the most obvious sequencing clues is a numbered list, as in a recipe. Instead of using numbers, writers may sometimes use the transitions first, second, third, and so on to indicate proper order. In addition, writers can show the sequence of events with carryover clues that show a relationship between two events. For example, the instruction "Drizzle the melted chocolate over the cake" must come after "Melt the chocolate in a double boiler."

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